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Tim Newell: The Grinch Who ‘Stole’ the Farm

There’s a famous line in Dr. Seuss’ book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that always comes to mind this time of the year: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas means a little bit more.”

Of course, for many families Christmas does come from stores.

The National Retail Federation reports that shoppers spent nearly 13 percent more this year over the Thanksgiving-Black Friday weekend than in 2011. That doesn’t include the nearly $1.5 billion in Cyber Monday purchases that followed. And shoppers continue to flock to the stores, telling Discover that they expect to spend $100 more this year than last on holiday shopping.

But the story doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the “little bit more” Dr. Seuss had in mind was seasonal giving.

A group of 1,400 charities this year, ranging from the United Nations Foundation to Mom It Forward and New York’s 92nd Street Y, designated the day after Cyber Monday as Giving Tuesday: a day for charity. Donations were up that day: 53 percent higher than on the equivalent day in 2011, according to Blackbaud.

Indeed, a recent Charity Navigator survey found that more people plan to make donations this holiday season than last year and that 29 percent plan to give more this year than last.

That’s good news for charities, which receive, on average, 40 percent of their annual donations between Thanksgiving and Dec. 31.

Many have wondered if this year-end giving spirit would stay strong in light of Hurricane Sandy and the political campaigns. The answer, according to an American Red Cross survey, is a resounding yes: 78 percent of Hurricane Sandy relief donors and 90 percent of those who gave to political campaigns said they had no plans to reduce their charitable giving this holiday season.

Still, there’s a charitable Grinch to consider as well — the practice among some nonprofit organizations to solicit donations for a specific purpose and then turn their backs on the donors.

Consider the story of Elizabeth Beall Banks, my Aunt Liz.

During the holiday giving season of 1989 she transferred ownership of her most prized treasure — a historic 138 acre farm located in Washington’s Maryland suburbs — to Johns Hopkins University. The school promised to use the Belward Farm property, worth more than $50 million at the time, for a new low-density suburban campus.

Now that Aunt Liz is no longer with us, the university wants to go back on its word. Teaming up with local county officials, the land is being rezoned for a sprawling high-rise office development that Johns Hopkins plans to lease to commercial interests — desecrating my Aunt Liz’s memory, while generating huge revenues for the university and the county.

They call it “Science City.” Sounds nice — except that it goes against everything my fiercely anti-development aunt stood for, and everything Johns Hopkins promised when they accepted the property.

For more than a year our family has been involved in a lawsuit seeking to enforce the terms of the gift. We’re doing this not only out of respect for our Aunt Liz, but for other donors — now and in the future — who donate to charity for one purpose, only to have their gifts used for another.

Our family’s story is not unique. Other families have had similar experiences with nonprofit institutions that make promises to donors in the process of soliciting large gifts — and then go back on those promises.

Just this summer, the Italic Institute filed a lawsuit against Columbia University claiming that the university is misusing “La Casa Italiana,” a building donated for the purpose of furthering knowledge and understanding of Italian history and culture.

Most donors give because they care, not because they get a tax deduction.

Our Aunt Liz donated her farm because she wanted to see it preserved, amid the sprawling developments that have claimed most of the land in nearby suburban Washington.

If donors care, this is the season for charities to show they also care. Even the Grinch came around at the end:

“And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,

“He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light,

“And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

“And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”

∎ 

Tim Newell, nephew of the late Elizabeth Beall Banks, owns a nursery sales company in New Jersey. Readers may send him email at timnewell-associates.com.