Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A school by any other name would come up short

Ever wondered why the very, very wealthy give money for civic and university buildings and the like and then, predictably, have their names put on the object of the gift?

Presumably a fair amount of ego-massaging goes into obtaining “naming gifts,” as they are called in the philanthropy world.

But no one wants to talk about egos publicly. It all seems a bit shallow, and besides, isn’t the reason for naming gifts obvious? Isn’t it a bit rude to ask, “Where did you find the moxie to have your name put on the building (or park or bridge or water fountain)?”

If only the deals were cut with a modicum of modesty.

Here’s the scene:

An executive fundraiser seeking a multimillion dollar gift: “Of course, we’d want to name the building ‘The Daddy Warbucks Graduate School of Lucrative Investing.’”

Warbucks: “No, no. Name it after Gandhi or Mother Teresa.”

Fundraiser: “Mr. Warbucks, we insist!”

Warbucks: “Well, okay, if you insist. You might add Momma Warbucks’ name as well.”

Fundraiser: “Done! ‘The Daddy and Momma Warbucks’ Graduate School of Lucrative Investing’ it is!”

Warbucks: “No need to illuminate the sign on the building.”

Fundraiser: “We insist! Absolutely! Right up there in lights!”

Warbucks: “Well, if you insist.”

And so it goes, all behind the scenes.

Until now.

In today’s New York Times we learn that the University of Pennsylvania has obtained a $225 million naming gift for its medical school from Raymond and Ruth Perelman.

No hidden motive here. Said Mr. Perelman, 93, “I look at it as Penn Medicine gave me a gift. They offered me an opportunity to have my name on one of the best medical schools in the country.”

Opportunity taken. For Mr. Perelman, apparently, it was cheap at the price, a cool $225 mil.

But it isn’t all about his name in academic lights for Mr. Perelman and his wife, who are known for their philanthropy in Philadelphia.

Later in the story, Mr. Perelman shares with The Times that he expects the school to use the money to expand to meet “the growing demand for doctors.” (The Times story does not relate whether at 93, Mr. Perelman has his own growing demand for doctors.) The president of the university, Amy Gutmann, who reportedly worked on the Perelman deal for a year, responds that the donation “might” make more doctors possible.


For $225 million, Perelman gets “might”? Apparently more doctors weren't part of the deal.

What was a part of it is the school's new name, “The Raymond and Ruth School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.”