Naming Rites

It’s not unusual for people to change their names. Last names change with marriage, divorce, career changes, whim, and the urge to assimilate. My maternal grandparents anglicized their surname “Medvedsky” to “Meadow” within a few years of arrival in America. (Family legend has it that my Great-Uncle Harry, who reputedly was a low-level operative in the New Jersey mob, insisted on the name change. His siblings wisely and swiftly complied.) First names change as well, with evolving tastes and preferences. A quick visit to the local magistrate is usually all it takes for a new identity.

But when nonprofits want to change the name on a building, it’s a much more public – and complicated – exercise.

Which brings us to Lincoln Center, the renowned performing arts complex in New York City. Lincoln Center is undertaking a gut reconstruction of Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s home for the last four decades. The construction costs are projected to be $500 million. The folks at Lincoln Center didn’t think they could raise that much cash without a significant leadership gift, and that gift, they felt, would require naming the reconstructed hall after the donor. The opportunity to get your name on one of the preeminent performing arts venues in New York, the thinking went, would be worth a bundle.

But there was a catch. Even though this is essentially going to be a new performance hall, Lincoln Center had to deal with the fact that Avery Fisher’s name was already attached to the space. And, though Avery Fisher himself had long passed from the scene, his heirs have not – and it turns out that they are a litigious bunch who needed to be placated. And so, to induce the family to agree to the name change, Lincoln Center slipped Avery’s three children a total of $15 million – or $4.5 million more than their dad had donated to begin with in 1973. (In the category of deep ironies, the story goes that Avery Fisher, by all accounts a very modest man, had to be convinced to allow the hall to be named after him in 1973. He apparently thought the naming ritual was unnecessary and meaningless.)

Once Lincoln Center paid off the Fisher family, it offered the naming rights to the highest bidder. It only took a few months to come up with a winner: Hollywood mogul David Geffen, whose name will now adorn the hall in exchange for a $100 million gift.

Like tabloid gossip about rich families (divorce! adultery! drug use! tax evasion! cosmetic surgery!), whose problems are just like ours, only with much more money and vastly more public scrutiny, it’s fun to read about the rich and famous of the philanthropic world. But there are serious lessons from the Lincoln Center story that can be helpful to those of us in the less-elite parts of the philanthropic world:

1) It’s perfectly fine to name buildings and parts of buildings after major donors – but make sure everyone knows the rules. I deeply admire Pablo Eisenberg, the conscience of the philanthropic world, but he went a little overboard in a recent fulmination against naming buildings after billionaires. Dispensing honors in exchange for gifts is a tried-and-true way to attract funding for capital projects. But everyone should be clear up front if the name is perpetual or only for a limited time period. David Koch, the oil-and-gas billionaire and conservative political mega-donor, allowed a 50-year limit on his name adorning a nearby hall at Lincoln Center. Geffen Hall, on the other hand, is perpetual. If Lincoln Center wants to do another gut rehab in sixty years and tries to summon up another named donor, they’ll have some legal issues on their hands.

2) Make sure the price is right. Geffen paid $100 million for the naming rights to the hall, which is a lot of money. But let’s not forget that Lincoln Center had already given $15 million as an inducement to the Fisher family. That’s a net of $85 million, or only 17% of the total construction cost. That’s too little. I’d think that 40%, or even 50% of the total cost would be more appropriate. In a town with so much money, I think Lincoln Center sold the name too cheaply.

3) Consider whether the honoree will attract or repel subsequent donors. If the building is named after someone, and that name goes public at an early stage, other donors might want to help honor that person, or they might run away in horror, or something in between. I don’t think Geffen is a controversial character – but in raising money for Geffen Hall, it would be helpful if potential donors admired the guy.

4) Consider your response if the honoree turns out to be a public embarrassment. Remember Dennis Koslowski, the disgraced CEO of Tyco? Koslowski, recently released from jail, became a household name a decade ago for corporate excess and corruption. That created a sticky situation for Middlebury College, which had recently named its campus childcare center after Koslowski. It’s never simple to take a name off a building – though it’s vastly easier when the donor goes to jail and it’s proven that the money that bought the honor was ill-gotten. Middlebury took scrapers to the Koslowski name and hasn’t looked back.

It’s more difficult when there are well-known and credible accusations of wrongdoing, but no criminal convictions. For example, the serial rape accusations swirling around Bill Cosby have caused challenges for the many colleges and universities he had supported, and on whose boards he served. Cosby and his wife had donated $20 million to Spellman College in Atlanta to establish an endowed professorship and program for the humanities. Spellman “suspended” the program, but didn’t indicate that they would return the money or strip the name off the endowment. Everything is in limbo. Spellman also hasn’t said if Cosby’s name would remain on their humanities building.

Not a simple situation. As my grandmother, born Sarah Schulman, then Sarah Medvedsky, and finally Sarah Meadow would have said: “Oy!” And stay tuned in future posts for more thoughts on philanthropic naming, and un-naming.


[Note: The morning after I posted this, the New York Times had a lengthy article about the Lincoln Center story. And, like me, several observers thought Lincoln Center sold the naming rights for too little.]

Copyright Alan Cantor 2015. All rights reserved.

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