When wealthy philanthropists donate, should they expect anything in return? The question has been batted back and forth for years, and this past week it came to the forefront again when media mogul and philanthropist David Geffen officially promised $100 million to the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic. It wasn’t just the donation—Geffen added the stipulation that the building be renamed Geffen Hall in perpetuity.
The hall was originally named after violinist Avery Fisher, who revolutionized sound reproduction via Fisher radios and phonographs. He was a board member of the New York Philharmonic, and in 1973, he gave them $10 million as an endowment.
Now, however, the hall needs repairs, and Fisher’s descendants threatened legal action if the hall were rebuilt or renovated under a different name. In response, New York Philharmonic leaders offered the family $15 million to release naming rights, which the family accepted.
That taken care of, the organization announced they would rename the building after the person who offered to donate the most toward renovations, the total of which is estimated at more than $500 million. Geffen’s was the highest bid, winning him the naming rights.
There’s nothing illegal about the whole process, and some might say that Geffen deserves the naming rights because of his generosity. But the question remains: Should it be enough to give? Or should philanthropists always be given something in return?
Legally, the specific terms of donations are considered a private matter between the charitable organization and the donor. Charities are allowed to decline gifts with strings attached…but what charity can afford to do so? And the tendency for donors to require naming rights has risen in the past few years, such as with the New York Public Library (now officially called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) and the New York State Theater (now called the David H. Koch Theater). These namings rights are not always perforce in perpetuity—but some are.
In the case of the New York Philharmonic, the charitable organization itself decided to make the offer to donors, as opposed to a donor suggesting it. Still, it begs the question of whether or not this trend is likely to continue in philanthropic giving, particularly in New York.
What do you think? Should philanthropic donors be given naming rights when they contribute to cultural buildings? Should limits, if any, be set on how long the name lasts and what level of donation is required?