The UConn Foundation is currently drafting a letter to the Connecticut State Legislature with an offer to deliver their financial highlights and endowment reports, but not their donors’ names, directly to the legislature each year.
“We are going to make it easy, but I need to protect my donors,” President and CEO of the UConn Foundation Josh Newton said. “We hope this will do a lot of good. I don’t want to have the ground hog conversation.”
Over the past 10 years, the legislature has brought up the issue of more transparency from the organization with more more intensity in recent years, including this year (2015) and last year (2014). Although the Foundation is a private non-profit organization and is therefore not required to provide information to the public, in Connecticut there is a special exemption from FOI for all organizations that fundraise for public agencies affirming that they are private entities. Such an exemption does not exist for the equivalent of the UConn Foundation in most other states, they are just assumed to be private.
“If you give me a charitable private, not secret, I say private not secret, there is nothing secret about it, you couldn’t look up who the donor was or what the gift was, can you do that for any other nonprofit – no,” Newton said. “Why are we different from any other nonprofit in the state? And why as a donor would you be exposed or treated in a different way than if you gave to any other organization. My accountability is to the donor.”
And those donors would most likely not continue donating if their names and information became public information, Newton said.
However, on the first day of the legislature this year, a bill to subject the UConn Foundation to FOI was proposed “in order to guarantee accountability and openness,” according to proposed bill No. 98.
A public hearing about the proposal was held in February and drew many UConn grads, employees and students to the state capitol to testify, including UConn graduate and Foundation Board member Dan Toscano.
“I am here because I’m very concerned that the General Assembly is considering legislation that will most definitely have a chilling effect on the philanthropy that is essential to building and maintaining a top-notch flagship University,” Toscano said to the Higher Education Committee on Feb. 26. “As someone who has given significantly to UConn for more than a decade, I can attest to the fact that treating the Foundation like a state agency will deter people like me from giving.”
There were two other bills raised in the same session for the purpose of subjecting the Foundation to a state audit and FOI. Both bills failed to be enacted by the legislature. But if trends continue, these will not be the last bills aimed at opening up the Foundation to the public to be proposed.
The main reason behind the continuous and increasing demands for more information about donors and donations, according to Netwon and Derek Slap — the Associate Vice President for External Relations at the UConn Foundation — is the idea that the Foundation can do whatever they want with the money they are given.
However, of the $81 million in gifts and commitments received by the UConn Foundation last year, about 95 percent of them were restricted. This means that they are designated for a specific purpose and cannot be reallocated to better serve UConn’s priorities.
“They are for scholarship for low income students from Connecticut or for the basketball practice facility, big gifts are almost always restricted,” Slap said. “If we ignored donor intent no one would ever give, you have to be accountable to donors.”
What often puts the Foundation in the spotlight are large, restricted gifts that don’t seem to fit the need-based scholarship priority of the University and the Foundation. For example, the $250,000 gift given for the Fusco speaker series that was used to bring Hillary Clinton to UConn last spring.
“We could have said ‘no thanks, we don’t want the speaker’ and we wouldn’t have had the money to pay for it, but it’s not like we pulled it from scholarship,” Slap said. “That is something that people don’t always get. Donor intent is sacred for us, we accept it as long as it fulfills the mission of the university.”
Although many throughout the state complained of the misuse of funds, the funds would not have been given for any other purpose and therefore could not have been used to create more scholarships.
“My gut reaction is to be a little bit concerned about using that much money on just bringing in speakers, but knowing where the money came from and why I don’t see anything wrong with it,” 4th-semester ecological and evolutionary biology major Kwasi Wrensford, who attended the Hillary Clinton speech last year, said. “I think it fulfilled the university mission. If the idea is to educate students in a more overall sense, then bringing Hillary Clinton in definitely fulfills that mission.”