A Little Thing Called Donor Intent

Posted more than a year ago.

In an earlier post, I attempted to answer one of your top questions in the big, messy realm of funding priorities: “Where’s my passion project?”

Today—spurred on by the very good thoughts of my friend and Director of Alumni Communications, Chris Adair (who was previously spurred on by the very good thoughts of fellow alums and some current students)—I’d like to tackle another toughie. And this one’s a two-parter.

But before we dive too deep into the questions at hand, let me be really clear on one thing. When it comes to identifying and discussing expenditures of any kind at Oklahoma Christian, there is one constant: subjectivity.

“Too expensive,” “too cheap,” “very important,” “unimportant,” “well-funded,” “under-funded,” “shrewd,” and “wasteful” are terms and phrases laced with opinion. Even the terms “mission-centric” and “mission-peripheral” carry a small dose of subjectivity.

Now if you’re like me, you’re mounting a counterpoint to this opinion decree in your head already. “But certainly we can all agree that $$ is too much to spend or that XYZ department is under-funded or that ABC is mission critical,” you’re starting to think. However, even as you think it, that “all agree” phrase catches in your cerebrum. 

Let’s face it, when it comes to navigating a sea of 20,000 some odd voices, the notions above are all relative. (Yes, even that one you’re thinking isn’t. It’s not relative to you, but it is to someone.) Every one of us will see Thrive and our OC home a little differently. We’ll never get 100% of us to agree on the priorities, expenditures, and strategies in every area on and off campus.

And that’s a very good thing, too, because diverse opinions foster greater creativity and innovation anyway. I don’t want you to think I consider “opinion” to be a dirty word. It’s a great word, actually.* We just need to be ever aware of its presence.

So, with all that out there, let’s get on with part one of the question…

Part 1 – “Why did you invest so much (or at all) in Project A?”

This is the flipside of the “Where’s my passion project?” idea. However, more so than its curious and straightforward cousin, this question harbors and functions on underlying opinion. In fact, it’s often much more personal critique than inquiry.

I call this question Part 1 because it implies a Part 2, and my hunch is that you’ve already filled in that second bit with a thought of your own. “Why did you invest so much in Project A…when Project B is more important to OC’s mission?” or “…when Project B is in greater need of funding?” or “…when Project A already has enough?” or “…when OC should be going lean, not living large?!” and so on.

I could spend weeks posing thoughts on all these fronts (and maybe I will), but today I want to address what I see as one root instigator of questions like these. And that’s a little thing called “donor intent.”

In fundraising circles, donor intent is sacred terminology—and it means just what you think it means. If you donate to Oklahoma Christian, with the communicated intent of supporting a specific project, then the decision-makers and check-cutters at Oklahoma Christian commit to using your dollars for that project alone. We call this “restricted giving” because your dollars are restricted to a single purpose or sphere at the University.

Not only does it make good sense on a public relations front to abide by your giving desires, and not only is it morally right to do so, but we are also legally obligated to submit to donor intent. The IRS monitors and regulates its fair interpretation and application across all non-profits.

All that probably makes perfect sense to you. In fact, you’re probably nodding right now and thinking, “of course you would use my money for what I said…that’s what I expect, after all, and to do anything else would be dishonest.” And I agree. So how does this very sensible idea cause a wrinkle on the funding priority front?

Well, there are priorities and expenditures that the University identifies (the Thrive Year One menu for example) and then there are the priorities and passions of our major donors. These often align—and we work hard to connect our donors with existing, strategically relevant projects—but sometimes donor-driven efforts are a little bit “off menu.” (And that’s okay.) I’ll use a hypothetical example to illustrate:

Let’s say you decide to get involved in a big way during the current campaign, but none of our current projects really speak to you. You were an underwater basket-weaver major in college and you’d like to see a new academic center established for the weavers following in your footsteps.

Sitting down to lunch with the President, he asks if you’d be willing to commit $1 million to the campaign. You’re already excited about the possibilities, so you enthusiastically say “yes!” but with one caveat: you want your money to go to an underwater basket-weaving center. That is where your passion lives and you don’t want your money going for anything else.

Now underwater basket weaving is a solid program at the University. It hasn’t been identified as a strategic priority simply because limited resources require OC to refine investment targets rather sharply, but underwater weaving is still a positive place to invest. A new $1 million center in the field would certainly help our current students, it would support part of OC’s mission, and it wouldn’t create any new liability for the University. In a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, this center is a definite “take it.”

The President agrees and the story unfolds from there. Your center makes a great positive impact for the campus and you feel delighted connecting with your passion in such a concrete and substantial way.

Okay. Back to the real projects past and present at OC. Hopefully you see the connection from this story to an effort you’ve wondered about on campus. It’s not always the case, but very often when a project materializes from “out of left field” or the investments in an effort seem “too high” (remember these are opinion-based sentiments), donor intent played a role.

And, just like my perspective on the word “opinion,” I also think “donor intent” is a very healthy, wonderful, non-dirty phrase. Don’t hear me saying that these highly intentional donors are pigeonholing us. That’s not the case at all. They’re making amazing things happen at OC that wouldn’t happen otherwise. The things they make happen are just unique enough, though, to sometimes inspire your Part 1 Question: “Why did you invest so much (or at all) in Project A?”

We’ll talk more about this, I’m sure. For now, though, keep this little nugget on donor intent in the back of your mind and remember three things for me:

1) Remember, first, that your perspective (and mine) on OC’s priorities and expenditures is unique and subjective.

2) Remember that astoundingly sacrificial people are making these projects happen on campus—and we have a duty to help see their mission-complementary passions through when we accept their generosity.

3) Remember, as you look around at our campus and programs, that everyone at OC is striving to make purposeful and prayerful investments. If a price or choice seems out of left field, that’s often because you’re missing some of the facts. (And shame on us for not giving you those!) Donor intent is very often one of those facts.

So when an investment seems weird (to you), seek the answers! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: never be satisfied in the dark.

And with that overwhelmingly long post, and ending on a very apropos point 3, I’ll leave you to reflect on these ideas and to look forward to a future post on one big second half of the question:

Part 2 – “…when tuition is high and could be used on other things?”

More very soon.

-Will

*All my favorite people are opinion-havers.