The House General Laws Committee passed a bill last Tuesday that would permit donors to public colleges and universities to remain anonymous if they wish to do so.
House Bill 407, sponsored by Sen. Edward Houck (R-Spotsylvania) and Delegate Glenn Oder (R-Newport News), passed the committee on an 18-3 vote.
The measure, which came at the request of the University of Virginia, would grant Virginia's colleges and universities an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act to withhold a large amount of personal information about donors.
UVa officials argued that the policy is necessary to protect the privacy of donors.
UVa currently has an internal fundraising database that provides personal information about potential donors. The database includes more than 2,000 fields of information. The donor's Social Security number, marital status, estimated net worth, contact information, employment history, birth date, and other sensitive information is available in the database. The database of information aids the university in its ongoing $3 billion fundraising campaign.
If the bill is approved, UVa could deny Freedom Of Information requests for its whole database. The school would only be required to release small pieces of information such as for what the donation was designed or the size and date of the contribution, not personal information that donors wish to keep private.
Robert Sweeny, senior vice president for Development and Public Affairs at UVa, said it is very important to the school to protect its donors.
"A good example is a young UVa alumnus who comes from an extraordinarily wealthy family and just donated a million dollars to the school," Sweeny said. "But this alumnus is determined to build a life for herself that is not built around wealth and wishes for her gift to remain anonymous. With information like this being public, she feels that this would really have an impact on how she is trying to live her life."
UVa currently has more endowment and gift income than state support, with only 8 percent of the operating budget for UVa coming from the state of Virginia.
"Philanthropy at UVa is very, very important to us," Sweeny said. "It is the driving force in what we do here. Being able to keep faith with our donors, which is about 1 percent that want to be kept anonymous, is key to us. As far as Freedom of Information goes, not only can the press ask for Freedom of Information requests, but anyone can. We must protect our donors from having their highly personalized information go public."
Moira Kavanagh Crosby, founder of MKDM, a fundraising consulting practice in Charlottesville, agreed with Sweeny.
"Among the ethical standards that good development professionals follow is a commitment to a donor's right to privacy," Crosby said.
"Without the assurance of anonymity, some donors may think twice about whether or not to support an organization -- and for all the wrong reasons. Is the organization effective? Will my gift make a difference? These are the types of things a donor should be asking when evaluating how to direct their philanthropy. Not: Can I trust this organization to respect my wish for anonymity? What will happen if others know where I am directing my philanthropy?"
The Virginia Press Association, however, is opposed to the measure.
"When it gets down to not knowing about the donor who could possibly influence the university, it is very suspect as to what might be going on," said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.
Stanley said with state taxpayers being some of the biggest donors to UVa every year; this issue is about a standpoint of knowing what the government is doing.
"For the taxpayers of Virginia to not be able to see who the donors are to the university, is just not good public policy," Stanley said. "It's very hard to understand why a legislator would side with a public body over the rights of the individual citizens.
"We need the citizens to realize that the legislators are favoring a public body over their constituents."
Senate Bill 130 and House Bill 407 are companion bills, and must both pass in order to make the law official.
"Unfortunately, it could be as late as April until we know," Stanley said. "We want everyone to know that this would change a longstanding public policy of public bodies having their records open for citizens to examine. This doesn't just relate to donors of higher education. This is a huge public policy change in our state that we think is in the wrong direction."