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Last week Matt Reed (“Confessions of a Community College Dean”) lamented unused funds given by donors in his post “ Dead Money .” He wondered what could be done about funds (especially scholarship dollars) whose restrictions make them impossible to use. If there were a topic most likely to ignite a rant from me, this would be it. If I were the Lewis Black of higher education, this would be the column of a million opinions.

If I thought I could, I’d lay down an angry, unhinged tirade right here, right now. Would Inside Higher Ed even allow the use of “fuck,” “fuckers,” “fuckery” and “fucking” in a blog post? I wonder. (If those words were changed to *&#! and other symbols, the answer was “no.”). I don’t even think an old-school Ed Anger Weekly World News wacko politics-laden rant would do the trick for me when it comes to this subject. Nevertheless, I’ll try to keep this clean if I can.

Nothing makes me madder than unused donations. Well, let’s just say it’s in my top 10 things in higher ed causing my wig to be flipped. You’d find it somewhere after discrimination, assault, harassment, maleficence in the workplace and somewhere before paranoid university presidents stuffing full-length puffy coats under doors for soundproofing, deans asking for logos, employees sleeping and snoring on the job for no good reason, and students asking if what I just said is going to be on an exam. Why? Because leaving donations unused is unethical, unbelievable, unnecessary and avoidable.

I imagine a few of you might be asking in a snotty, high-and-mighty, can’t-be-bothered-to-talk-about-money tenured tone, “Who made you the Ralph Nader of charitable contributions?” After more than 30 years working with donors in every aspect of fundraising and conducting audits of somewhere near 1,000 endowment accounts, I’ll retort in my best Lewis-Black-about-to-have-a-thrombo-talking-about-Asheville voice (sans the F-words), “Call me a self-appointed activist, damn it. I don’t care. I’ve seen some shit.” More politely, I’ll say, “It’s my day job to unravel and overcome obstacles institutions face in spending donor-provided funds.”

Here’s the thing: there’s always been some elementary school teacher slowly investing pennies in the stock market, a cantankerous couple buying a 10-gallon vat of pickles at Costco and an older man hiding pants in the racks at Goodwill until senior day when he can get 10 percent off. They do these things to save their money and to be able to give it all away to some college or university when they die. I’ve seen more gifts come in from people like that than the superwealthy who buy yachts, estates for eight figures and ridiculously expensive $65 T-shirts from Jason Scott. Just knowing regular people give that many shits on a daily basis, so students, faculty, staff and alums have better opportunities, should be reason enough for employees and institutions to be the best stewards of contributions possible.

In his column, Matt talked about how restrictions on spending seem to be the reason for dead money, but there are other reasons, too, such as: Departments not knowing funds are available and/or being confused about which account is which. (This happens all the time with similarly named accounts. Imagine eight endowment accounts named Johnson. It is a real problem. Everyone needs to work on fixing communications and naming conventions.)

An overworked employee toiling away decades ago shorthanded the restrictions so the information fit in a database that only allowed a certain number of characters per field. It’s never been fixed; now the entry has become “business office law.” (If I could go back in time, I’d chew out some program developers who created early databases and business systems. What were they thinking? Also, to the business office, please take a humility pill and realize you’re not always right.)

An officious employee at one time or another in the past imposed restrictions never intended by the donor in order to create an “improved” and “clear” process to follow. (When I discover this type of nonsense, I close my office door to contain the expletives emanating from my mouth. Unraveling stupid, petty, controlling, shortsighted, clenching-sphincter idiocy is a royal pain.)

A scarcity mentality whereby departments created their own restrictions because they’re afraid of running out of money. Fast-forward a few years, and people don’t know the difference between what the department fabricated and what the donor intended. (Spoiler alert: Donors give money because they want you to spend it. If you don’t spend the money, they think you don’t need it, […]

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