Journal of Universal Rejection coffee mug,” Tilemahos Efthimiadis

March 14, 2018; Monett Times

Some large gifts are philanthropic versions of Trojan horses, and the wise nonprofit measures this possibility carefully. This story reflects one organization’s consideration and ultimate rejection of what would have been a course-changing offer.

The Barry-Lawrence Library system in Missouri has been seeking a new location for its Monett branch, which also hosts its regional offices. Its current building has sprung one too many leaks, requiring 15 buckets to be placed strategically around its 6,200 square feet of space. Repairs would have cost less than $4,000, but in the end the space is not large enough for its traffic and is awkwardly designed for its purpose.

Then, at the end of last year when the leaks were at their peak, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks contacted the library on behalf of an anonymous donor interested in helping to build a new building. They explored what the costs might be and went back to ask for $2.5 million, but the donor countered with a preference for a downtown location. The only valid choice would have been an existing building that would need complete renovation for the purpose. The library already has another donated location where it could build a brand-new building for the same amount.

“We discussed it with the board in December and decided based on our policy, which states we don’t accept gifts which are restricted, meaning someone says, ‘I’ll give you money, but you have to renovate this specific building [with it],’ Library director Gina Milburn said. “We do let people say, ‘We want [you] to spend our donation on this and that, but we don’t let them pick out the items we purchase. For instance, late State Sen. Emory Melton gave $25,000 for a specific purpose, but he didn’t say, ‘You have to use it on books or furniture’; he said, ‘I’d like for you to use it for children and teens.’ It’s a much bigger deal when you’re restricted to a specific location with a gift.”

Still, they continued to explore and negotiate, “We gave the board a chance to tour the building and see what we would be in for, and in the process, discovered the building is in the floodplain,” Milburn said.

“The donor’s heart was in downtown Monett, and we wanted to see it succeed,” Milburn said. “We appreciate the donor even thinking of the library, but, ultimately, the downtown building is just not usable for the purposes we need. That, combined with the flood insurance costs, and not much parking space.”

Ultimately, the board made the decision to value its own assessment of the situation over the temptation of a large restricted gift. Would your board have a donation policy in place to guide them through such choice making? Maybe you should look into that.—Ruth McCambridge