Fundraising Ethics Controversy in Michigan! Naming Buildings After Big University Donors: Ethical or Not?


I worked in the development (capital fundraising) office of Georgetown University for many years, and am well aware of the sausage-making that goes into attracting big donations. Thus the controversy that recently erupted in Michigan is of interest both for its ethical content and the way it dances around inconvenient truths.

With the college student’s wonderful knack for avoiding the obvious, the student newspaper of Grand Valley (Michigan) State University declared ethics war on what it called “billboards”: buildings and lecture halls named after corporate and individual donors. With naivete and boundless ignorance of the world of philanthropy and non-profit fundraising, the editorial declared (among other things)…

  • “What’s next? Will we turn Lake Huron 133 into the “Amway Lecture Hall?” Will the backs of our chairs have plaques dedicated to the lower-level donors?” COMMENT: For enough money, of course the university would rename the hall. Why should it care what a lecture hall is called, if it can avoid having to raise tuition? As for the backs of seats: did the editors do any research at all? Opera companies, theaters, museaums and other non-profit entities do exactly this. So what?

  • “We’re compromising the tradition of academic purity—the integrity of our educational efforts—for a quick buck.” COMMENT: Welcome to reality, kid. It’s not pure as long as those bucks are necessary to keep the doors open. Go try to explain to your professors why they should teach for pieces of moldy cheese and a cot. Go ahead. I’ll wait over here.
  •  “It’s time that we stop prostituting ourselves to corporate sponsors and reserve the eternal respect of namesakes for figures who significantly contributed to our educational endeavors.” COMMENT: I guess it’s also time you get used to going to class in a tent. Bulletin: corporate donors who give millions to the school have “significantly contributed to your educational endeavors.”
  • “Why elevate our local corporations—however heroic they may be—to stand at the side of William James and Alexander Calder, after whom we have named campus elements? It just doesn’t feel right.” COMMENT: It doesn’t feel right because you want to have your cake and eat it too, a bad habit cllege is supposed to help ween you out of. How would not being able to go to college at all feel, either because it didn’t exist, or because it cost so much that you couldn’t afford to attend with being a Koch or a Clinton?
  • “It’s not that we don’t wish to be associated with these corporations. Many of them have greatly contributed to West Michigan and are exemplary figures of community involvement. And this isn’t to detract from the generosity of donors. We in no way wish to appear ungrateful. Certainly, without their contributions, we would not be living as comfortably with the futuristic library and business building, and we probably wouldn’t be managing a reasonable university budget. Donors: we want to be clear that we are extremely appreciative of your contributions. We just don’t approve of the way that GVSU responds to them.” COMMENT: Allow me to translate, please, if I may? “It’s not that we’re not grateful, its just that we find what you stand for disgusting, and want the full benefit of your generosity without having to give up the fantasy that contributions to education arise out of pure altruism.”
  • “We trust that you would have donated without the expectation of shiny signage in a well-trafficked part of campus (also known as advertising).”  COMMENT: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Stop, stop, you’re killing me!

A really, really silly and intellectually lazy editorial. Next up, a condemnation of students who are sexually aroused by attractive fellow students of the opposite  (or same) sex, instead of being turned on by the fat, stupid, drunk, squat and ugly.

However, the school itself was unable to leave the piece as a res ipsa loquitur example of ideology without proper respect for cold hard facts, and issued this:

Dear Editor:

The editorial in the December 5 Lanthorn (“No More Billboards”) is a kick in the teeth to generations of donors who built Grand Valley State University. Instead, the Lanthorn, on behalf of our students, should thank donors for their commitments that make student success possible. That the Lanthorn is ignorant of this reality is astonishing, embarrassing, and deeply disappointing.

Grand Valley would not exist were it not for the donor community. The university’s founders, led by L. William Seidman, were required by the State of Michigan to raise $1 million ($8 million in today’s dollars) before the Legislature would approve legislation to authorize Grand Valley. The founders succeeded in record time. No other public university in Michigan was born of public/private partnership and the names of our founders and donors appear on university buildings in grateful recognition of their foresight and determination.

In the 1980s, the university’s expansion into Grand Rapids was again endorsed by the donor community and could not have occurred but for their support. More recently, in the wake of state budget cuts, donors have again stepped to the plate to help us construct the Mary Idema Pew Library and the L. William Seidman Center. These extraordinary facilities were built without state funds and without raising tuition for construction. While neither Mrs. Pew nor Mr. Seidman asked that their names appear on these buildings, it is the university’s honor to recognize them, thereby illustrating for future generations of students the importance of selfless giving. One cannot learn to give without seeing how others do so.

Our donor community has also stepped up to create named scholarships for our students, while our own faculty and staff have forgone raises in order to increase giving to the university’s scholarship fund. Collectively, this kind of donor support makes Grand Valley fundraising the envy of higher education in Michigan. The Lanthorn should take pride in this – especially because so many of its staff receive scholarships from donors who help make Grand Valley accessible and affordable to talented students. Perhaps the Lanthorn staff should return their scholarships to the university for reissuance to students who would be more appreciative of our donors.


Karen Loth, Vice President for Development; Matthew McLogan, Vice President for University Relations

This letter may be published in future textbooks as examples of conduct warranting the Shakespearean rebuke (from “Hamlet”), “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  Of course buildings with donors names on them are the equivalent of billboards. Of course they are a form of advertising for corporations. Of course university fundraising is a cynical, dirty business—not prostitution, perhaps, but closer than fundraisers would like to think, especially when it involves procuring evening entertainment for rich, dirty old alumni, and don’t think it doesn’t some times. And, of course, there is no way around it if the school wants the money. The argument, however, that the students should wink at the inherent dishonesty of calling it philanthropy when it is obviously more than that because they benefit from it is ethically corrupt. The students are foolish to be shocked that philanthropy works this way, but the school is dishonest to deny it.

“You take the benefit of our hypocrisy: how dare you criticize what it really is?” And the end justifies the means, it all comes out in the wash, everybody’s got an angle, it’s for a good cause, you have to get your hands dirty sometimes, we have no choice, there are worse things, and everybody does it—so shut the hell up.

This, in turn, has escalated into an accusation from defenders of the newspaper that the letter above school threatened the students with loss of their scholarships if they didn’t adopt the official fiction that donors give to the university out of the goodness of their hearts. Lanthorn Editor-in-Chief Lizzy Balboa, eager to grab the mantle of the victim, said the message of the letter was that when it comes to being critical of the university, donors are off limits, and that it called into question the university’s commitment to free speech. Utter nonsense. The letter pointed out that the editorial was startlingly out of touch with unavoidable realities of funding universities; it just was unwilling to say how out-of-touch. It also correctly noted that there are consequences to refusing to accept the way money changes hands in corporate fundraising, among which are no longer having a school to attend. Good to know.

Then, adding a bit of hyper-pompous goobbledygook to the proceedings for comic relief, the ethics and religions panel of assembled by MLive columnist Rabbi David Krishef made hash of the issue, supposedly from an religious, ethical and moral perspective. Here is pastor Fred Wood

“Ideal and real meet head-on in fund raising and philanthropy. Every major religion promotes charity. All three Abrahamic faiths emphasize humility in giving .… Ideally, no one should ask or need to be recognized for giving. But in reality honor and recognition work. People like to be recognized. Those with more dollars have no less need to be appreciated than those with less, but because they have more, there is more ‘competition’ for those dollars and charities use recognition to attract donors. One sad result is that those who give proportionately more but actually less get far less recognition, and honoring large gifts enhances the status of those already important and powerful. Should donors want less recognition? Absolutely. Should charities offer less recognition? Absolutely. I wish I knew how to make it so.”

Pssst! Pastor! Big donations from the rich and large corporations usually aren’t true charity; those that are, come anonymously. Naming rights and similar honors are the currency by which non-profit institutions bargain for large gifts—it’s a business transaction, plain and simple, though one that carries a tax deduaction and the useful myth that it isn’t what it is. That’s why “it works.” And by the way, “It works” is not an ethical justification if it’s wrong.

Now Sandra Nikkel, a ministry coordinator and pastor:

“As Christ’s servant and Bible believing Christian the words from chapter two of the book of James immediately come to mind. This chapter addresses the issue of favoritism on the basis of money. The passage gives the example of a rich man who comes into a meeting ‘wearing a gold ring and fine clothes’ and a poor man who also comes in but is wearing ‘filthy old clothes.’ Paying special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and offering him a good seat while saying to the poor man, ‘You stand here or sit on the floor by my feet,’ is a form of discrimination and by doing so we become ‘judges with evil thoughts’ (James 2:4). “However, the point James is making here is that honoring one and not the other is wrong and he reminds us of the command to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ which includes loving the poor but does not exclude the rich. Thus, honoring donors who have given large amounts of money is not wrong. Furthermore, it’s wrong to think that all big donors are seeking fame and recognition….

“In the Bible we find a poor widow (Mark chapter 12 and Luke chapter 21) who gave all she had–two small copper coins–to the treasury. While the rich were giving great amounts of money Jesus says that the poor widow ‘put more into the treasury than all the others’ (Mark 12:43). He is saying that because this woman gave ‘all she had to live on’ she had put more into the treasury than all the others (Mark 12:43). However, Jesus never condemns the big donors.

“The challenge before us is to find ways to honor non-monetary contributors and small donors in creative ways. I think it’s fitting to name buildings after large donors. Furthermore, I really believe that many large donors accept the honor of having buildings named after them because they want to know that they counted for something greater than themselves and they want to be remembered as someone whose life made a difference in this world. Not all large donors give for vain conceit or selfish ambition. So, I am glad when buildings and dorms are named after big donors. It gives me an opportunity to praise God for their obedience in giving. If some gave for selfish ambitions, I let God be the judge. Meanwhile I will still praise God for their donations.”

1. (Jesus wasn’t much of a fundraiser.)

2. It may be wrong to think that all big donors are seeking fame and recognition, but most of them are, or they wouldn’t give. The motto in professional non-profit fundraising is “Donors give for their own reasons, not yours.”

3. “Furthermore, I really believe that many large donors accept the honor of having buildings named after them because they want to know that they counted for something greater than themselves and they want to be remembered as someone whose life made a difference in this world. Not all large donors give for vain conceit or selfish ambition.” Translation: ‘Who says pastors can’t use euphemisms and double-talk with the best politicians? Of course I know that to “know that they counted for something greater than themselves and they want to be remembered” means exactly the same thing as  vain conceit and selfish ambition, but it sounds so much nicer, and I’m raising money for a new parish hall right now, and you can be sure I’m not going to name it after that nice old lady who gave me her social security check.’

The truth is that the practice of calling such donations true charity is a scam, but one that non profits need to survive, at least in the manner to which they have become accustomed. What is the difference between the Houston Astros making a deal for Enron to pay the club millions for the visibility of having the team’s named after the company, getting it massive publicity in the community, and a university accepting a “gift” from Enron to name a new building at the business school “the Enron Building”? None. Absolutely none. In both cases, Enron is buying good will, visibility, publicity and advertizing. But corporations won’t make the big university gifts if they won’t be called nice things for doing it, like philanthropists and public-minded supporters of higher education, so the institutions, the government, the I.R.S, the fundraising establishment and the culture have made an agreement to lie what’s really happening, lest such donations dry up and disappear. It’s a utilitarian balancing, and on balance, society benefits.

Students, however, who are prime beneficiaries of the deal, need to avoid lousing it up by criticizing it out of ignorance, and the institutions shouldn’t counter their ignorance with outright denial. “Those who make big gifts deserve appropriate recognition” is all that needs to be said. “And they won’t give the money without it” may be true, but it is best that we figure that out on our own. It’s not hard.


Sources: MLive 1, 2:  The Grant Valley Lanthorn 1,2


13 thoughts on “Fundraising Ethics Controversy in Michigan! Naming Buildings After Big University Donors: Ethical or Not?

  1. It seems to me that these students had better come to the realization that, were it not for the free enterprise system they are apparently so disdainful of, there likely wouldn’t be a city, state or nation worthy of the name for them to have a college IN. Sure, this system can be taken to extremes. Yet, it should be remembered that Mr. Seidman did not insist that Grand Valley State be named for him. But if a lecture hall or other campus building is so named… so what? If a corporation sponsors the building of a new dormitory, why not name it after the entity- personal or collective- that financed it? The basic question might be, “Does this entity INSIST on naming rights as a condition for their generosity?”. In that case, a question of ethics might arise. There’s also a matter of a little scholastic dignity of purpose. One quails at the thought of Piggly Wiggly Animal Husbandry Laboratory!

  2. Why get excited over students confronting reality and not particularly liking it? This isn’t new.
    Why is the idea of actions leading to consequences so hard for people to understand? If you’re too pure to accept corporate sponsorship you might not get any money. So easy and linear.

  3. I do think there’s a layer between true charity and a pure business transaction, and a lot of university giving falls into it. Eli and Edythe Broad give a heaping pile of money to lots of universities, including my alma mater. I have no idea what they do, and I’m sure that money could have been spent in a way more efficient for business purposes than, say, building a college a new art musesum.

    Unless you count buying goodwill as a business transaction, which it sort of is, I suppose.

      • Which is why I distinguished it from true charity- but it’s still a kinder/nobler gesture than using the money on executive bonuses, advertising (Getting yoru name on a building isn’t advertising unless the students who see it have the foggiest idea what you do), or some other industry-specific expense that doesn’t serve the future like a library or lecture hall does.

    • You’re missing an option. Buying the ability to feel good about yourself, and a certain amount of smug self righteousness, is not a business transaction per se. I find it quite likely that a huge motivator for large donors is the ability to demonstrate their inherent goodness (in their own minds) for everyone to see rather than any business benefits they receive from it.

      • Bingo- that’s what I was trying to get out but couldn’t quite find the words for it. Not TRUE charity, as you say they’re buying self-righteousness and showing off how much they help worthy causes, but it’s less crass than a pure advertising move.

  4. Has anyone else read Atlas Shrugged? It was a hard read, but I plowed through it. There was this neat scene where Henry Rearden, an artisan steel provider was asked for money from his commie brother to further his commie agenda. Henry agreed to cut him a cheque, but his brother then asked for the donation to be made in cash, because his commie friends wouldn’t like him accepting charity from an industrialist. It struck me then just how ungrateful that request was, and just how oblivious the brother had to be to even ask.

  5. I wonder how many people out there just think Andrew Carnegie is “that guy who built all those libraries.”

    Industrialists can do great things with their money — even if they were otherwise not-so-nice people or had ulterior motives.

  6. Quick: What’s the tallest skyscraper in the United States?
    Hint: It’s in Chicago, IL.

    Did you say “The Sears Tower”?


    The correct answer is “The Willis Tower”.

    I point this out because, even within the economic realities, I think some care must be taken in the naming of places (such as buildings). Culturally, we do not change the names of people*, places, or things once assigned–and for good reason: it creates unnecessary confusion to do so.

    As such, we have a culturally-held belief (true or not) that names will stand forever–or at least for as long as the existence of the named person/place/thing. Given that belief, we aspire to choose names that are worthy of this little bit of semi-immortality and which will stand the test of time. (This is why weird baby names are always something that get people agitated. Thought 100% true, we just don’t consider the notion of “Well, he/she can always change it later.”)

    Which brings me back to my highlighting of the Willis Tower and a handful of other places like “Enron Stadium” or “PSI.Net Stadium”.

    Quick: Where is Shea Stadium? Where is (was) Three Rivers Stadium? Where is Wrigley Field? Where is PSI.Net Stadium?

    This is the inherent problem with “naming rights” as advertising. We often name places after people to honor that person, precisely because we want his or her name to live on beyond the person’s lifetime. But businesses rise and fall, and unless we genuinely want to honor the company itself indefinitely, the notion of changing a name just because a higher bidder arose is problematic.

    We need things to have names. We don’t need to complicate it with “So what’s it called THIS year?”


    * And yes, as with all rules, there are exceptions. I am aware of marriages and things like Catholic Confirmation names.

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