Opinion: Beware of hire purchase philanthropy

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

The rich "are different from you and me", F Scott Fitzgerald once said, prompting Ernest Hemingway to respond: "Yes, they have more money." He could have added: "And they expect special treatment."

Take the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, which has dropped the benefactor's name from its impressive atrium. The Vilar Floral Hall is plain old Floral Hall once more after Cuban-American money manager Alberto Vilar failed to honour his pledge of a multi-million-pound donation.

This oversight is probably because he is preoccupied, awaiting trial in the US on fraud charges.

Vilar was both a major international donor to the arts and notorious for wanting recognition for his gifts, sometimes even before the cheque had arrived, claiming that seeing his name would inspire others to compete to give more. Others might feel that real wealth doesn't always like to advertise itself.

The news about Vilar also revealed that the Royal Opera House had renegotiated a schedule of payments for his donation on several occasions. Whereas the average donor usually has to find the cash in full on the spot, it seems wealthy givers get time to pay in a form of hire purchase philanthropy.

An American fundraising friend tells me this is common practice in the US, especially after the dotcom boom and bust stretched the resources of newly enthusiastic philanthropists. Media mogul Ted Turner may have started it, when he pledged in 1997 to give $1bn to the United Nations, adding that it would be paid over 10 years.

Fundraisers eagerly targeting those whose significant worth features in the media should note that the respected business magazine Forbes valued Vilar at $950m (£540m) last year. However, when reality intruded and he was arrested, he could not find the $10m of loose change for bail to get himself out of prison straight away.

The Vilar case is certainly a warning to charities that they should see the colour of big donors' money before they start to carve their name in stone anywhere prominent. All that signage can be costly to remove, although the Royal Opera House website's Spaces For Hire section was still offering the Vilar Floral Hall last week.

Sometimes you just have to look those gift horses in the mouth.

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