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Ignore Donor Intent at Your Peril

(Jan. 9, 2006) A new survey shows that donors are very concerned with how charities use their contributions and consider it a serious matter if organizations use donations for unauthorized purposes.

The survey was conducted by Utica, N.Y.-based Zogby International, a polling and research firm, and commissioned by the children of Charles and Marie Roberton, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Princeton University. Their parents set up an endowment now valued at more than $650 million to help prepare graduate students at the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for government careers in foreign policy and diplomacy. The lawsuit alleges that the school has improperly used the funds and channeled very few graduates into government careers.

According to the survey, 97 percent of respondents consider it a 'very' or 'somewhat' serious matter if charities use contributions in ways unintended by donor. Of particular interest to charities, an additional 78.7 percent of respondents said they would 'definitely' or 'probably' no longer give to charities that used contributions for purposes for which they were not intended.

However, when asked what should happen when charities intentionally misuse funds, only 59.3 percent said organizations should 'definitely' or 'probably' return the contributions. More than one-third of respondents said the charity should 'definitely' or 'probably' keep the money.

However, respondents were not so forgiving when asked if nonprofit managers should be legally or criminally liable if they intentionally misused contributed funds. Nearly half (46.6 percent) said nonprofit managers should be held legally and criminally liable in this case, and 23.8 percent said they should be held legally liable only. Only 18.3 percent said they would ignore the misuse of funds.

The survey also asked general questions about how Americans donate. Approximately eight out of 10 Americans donate to charities either frequently (45.8 percent) or occasionally (36.7 percent). More than 57 percent typically contribute with no strings or conditions attached to the gift, but just over 40 percent reported they have made a donation and restricted it for a specific purpose.

'This survey is a reminder that we can never take the public trust lightly or for granted,' said Paulette Maehara, CFRE, CAE, president and CEO of AFP. 'There's a reason that donor intent is addressed both in our Code of Ethics and A Donor Bill of Rights. It's critical to ensuring public confidence, and fundraisers need to always take into account the needs and wants of donors.'

The survey of 1,216 voting-age American adults was conducted Nov. 20-22, 2005, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent.

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