How to Count Philanthropy

A new set of fundraising reporting standards aims to help colleges and universities compare their performance across borders. It also prioritizes ethical considerations at a time when donor and institutional conduct are under the microscope.

March 11, 2021
 
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A new set of standards seeks to standardize how colleges and universities report philanthropy, including bequests.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education is releasing an update of its Global Reporting Standards today, providing the first new edition in a dozen years of a set of guidelines and definitions used in reporting educational philanthropy.

CASE releases the update at a time when it is attempting to expand its reach around the globe by providing colleges and universities in different parts of the world with data that can be used to benchmark their fundraising efforts. Since the last guidelines were published, much has changed in fundraising policy and practice. Difficult ethical questions in the field have also drawn increasing scrutiny.

The standards are important for colleges and universities because they offer a common way to measure the complex gifts and pledges donors provide through a dizzying number of mechanisms. They’re of use to institutions in the United States, where developments in philanthropy and the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act sparked skyrocketing interest in giving through channels like donor-advised funds.

But it’s also noteworthy for institutions around the world, particularly those that might want to compare themselves to universities in countries that don’t share tax structures or philanthropic norms.

CASE’s president and CEO, Sue Cunningham, gave the example of when she was vice principal for advancement at the University of Melbourne in Australia. The university had few fundraising peers in Australia, so it was comparing itself to institutions in the United States and United Kingdom.

“What’s being done now is a way of ensuring whichever way the institution chooses to go, there is clarity of reporting,” Cunningham said.

That’s no easy task, because work groups wading into accounting details can find themselves sorting through a lot of nuance. And common practices can vary drastically from place to place.

When does a university count the money donors leave in their wills -- when the donors make the pledge? When they turn a certain age? When they die?

The answer has varied depending on where an institution is located -- and even in many cases between institutions. Planned giving, or the practice of giving money upon one’s death, isn’t as common in other parts of the world as it is in the United States. The money pledged also tends to actually arrive at different rates in different places.

“The compromise that arose out of that to keep this a global definition was when CASE will report grand totals for new funds committed, it will be both inclusive of that bequest number and exclusive of that bequest number,” said Cindy Moon-Barna, director of the CASE library and staff project manager for the CASE reporting standards. “So if you’re in a part of the world where bequests are not really a part of your fundraising portfolio or are something you don’t count because there’s a lower propensity of it actually panning out, you can still benchmark against institutions in the U.S. of a similar size.”

The updated standards include supplements for different regions around the world: Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“One of the really big things about the new global reporting standards is they make global benchmarking possible,” Moon-Barna said. “Currently you can benchmark against your colleagues in the U.S. and some in Canada. Never before has an institution in Singapore been able to benchmark against an institution in Texas.”

The new standards are also being incorporated into a CASE data and benchmarking service and the Voluntary Support of Education survey. The VSE survey is a key source of information about giving to educational institutions in the United States. CASE acquired it in 2018 to help it build a global clearinghouse for advancement data.

Institutions are required to adhere to the standards when filling out a CASE survey. Chief advancement officers sign off on the submitted results.

No enforcement mechanism exists. CASE is a membership organization, not a police force, Cunningham said. But the benchmarking data are only as good as institutions are honest. Institutions fudging the numbers would only be undermining their market intelligence.

“We do many benchmarking studies, which thousands of institutions participate in,” Cunningham said. “To drive greater benefit, there is a real advantage in adhering to the Global Reporting Standards.”

CASE is touting several other changes to the document that holds the guidelines. A section on ethics has been moved from the back of the book to the front. CASE is highlighting new guidance on donor control and influence in the new edition.

That could be important for U.S. colleges and universities, some of which have found their names wrapped up in controversies about donor control, perceived donor control and whitewashing the reputations of their donors.

For example, the University of Texas at Austin recently had to reject statements in emails from alumni who were threatening to pull gifts over the idea that the institution might stop playing its alma mater because of student concerns it was rooted in racism. In other cases, major donors like Charles Koch often make their priorities clear to universities.

Colleges and universities are increasingly having to ask whether they should be naming buildings, endowments or other operations after donors, as evidenced by institutions like New York University and Tufts University deciding to remove the name of the Sackler family in several cases because of their ties to opioids. Even crafting announcements of major gifts can raise eyebrows -- Wofford College’s announcement that Jerry Richardson was giving $150 million to its endowment called the donor the founding owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Richardson sold the team amid allegations of workplace misconduct.

Students are increasingly conscious of concerns about donor control and reputational whitewashing, said Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. They’re sometimes pushing back on how donors of the past were honored and continue to be honored.

“That’s not only in higher education but, more broadly, philanthropy,” said Pasic, who was vice president of international operations at CASE from 2011 to 2015. “There is something in the global zeitgeist about the influence of wealthy people and our sense of the concentration of power and resources over so many domains. In places like higher education, we don’t want to become so donor-focused that we forget the people we are serving.”

But it’s important not to limit the issue of ethics to the American context, Pasic said. A statement of ethics in a global standards document can be seen as propagating norms in parts of the world where philanthropy is relatively new to colleges and universities.

“This helps assure people internally that it doesn’t mean abandoning the direction of your university,” Pasic said. “This will, I think, make it more palatable and accessible to international audiences for whom philanthropy is sometimes seen more skeptically in a sense -- that giving money is likely to come with strings attached. That’s my interpretation.”

Fundraisers have to think about ethics at this moment, Pasic said.

“This is a good time to bring them up, and in many places also kind of revise and rethink ethics,” he said. “Think about how we can be more equitable and inclusive in terms of our profession.”

Here are some key changes CASE is highlighting in its new Global Reporting Standards:

  • Guidance related to gift counting, funds received, new funds committed and donor control and influence
  • CASE Statement on Ethics added to the front of the book
  • CASE Principles of Practice for the advancement disciplines added
  • A new definition for educational philanthropy: “Voluntary act of providing private financial support to nonprofit educational institutions. To be categorized as philanthropy in keeping with CASE standards, such financial support must be provided for the sole purpose of benefiting the institution’s mission and its social impact, without the expressed or implied expectation that the donor will receive anything more than recognition and stewardship as the result of such support.”
  • New standards for counting donor-advised funds
  • New standards for counting bequests

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