The University of New Hampshire seems to have been, legally speaking, properly handling a testamentary donation when it used one fourth of the $4 million that thrifty library cataloguer Robert Morin saved and left to the college for–are you ready?–a football scoreboard.
Mr. Morin had, it appears true, made a mostly unrestricted gift. By law, a nonprofit that receives such a gift must simply put it toward purposes that it believes to be appropriate within its mission. Sports is unquestionably part of a university’s mission (as opposed to, say, sending all the board members to Vegas for a weekend’s entertainment).
But does such a gift honor the donor’s legacy and convey a positive message to possible future donors? Many say not.
The importance of books and the library to Mr. Morin is revealed by the fact that, of his large gift, he earmarked $100,000 for the library where he worked for nearly 50 years.
The library was, according to reports, Mr. Morin’s “whole life;” he was so devoted to books that he systematically read nearly every one ever published in the United States. He also liked to sit outside the library smoking a pipe and chatting with students.
Perhaps if he’d been rolling in dough, the university’s use of his life savings would be less subject to question. But this is a man who reportedly lived humbly, drove an old Plymouth, and subsisted on frozen dinners.
In the end, it comes down to a public relations matter. In its press release announcing the gift, the university tried to allay criticism by saying, in essence, “He liked football, too!”
Other potential donors might not be so convinced–and even if they make gifts to the college, they might place more restrictions on them. Such restrictions can be a pain to deal with, particularly after years pass and the recipient’s programs and activities change, as described in Nonprofit Gifts: When Strings Are Attached.