Here's Another School Changing Its Name for a Big Gift. Which is Just Fine, This Time

The Joseph and Florence Mandel Family Foundation has made a $17 million gift to the Agnon School in Beachwood, Ohio. The trustees and Head of School termed this gift ‘absolutely transformative” and have decided to rename the school, the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School.

The Agnon School was formed in 1969 and named after Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), the first Israeli to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. Agnon saw himself as straddling between Jewish tradition and modern culture. The Agnon School says he was firmly rooted in both worlds, “just as we are here at Agnon.” 

This is a wonderful gift from the Mandels and a great gesture on the part of the school’s trustees to recognize the gift with a name change. Why do I say that about this charity name change while writing so negatively about the Paul Smith’s College and Avery Fisher Hall name changes?  

The Agnon School was named after S.Y. Agnon as a tribute to his accomplishments and because his literature exemplified the values and vision of the new school. Mr. Agnon did not donate or otherwise help form the school and his name on the building is not associated with any gift. There is no gift instrument executed between Mr. Agnon and the school trustees calling for the Agnon name to be on the school in perpetuity. The current trustees are therefore free to change the name of the school without seeking anyone's approval. The fact that there is no legal contract calling for the Agnon name on the school is most significant.

This situation is substantially different from that at Paul Smith’s College. At PSC, the name of the college is specified within the gift of land and cash that created the school. Furthermore, the terms of the gift instrument call for the school to be “forever known as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.” This is why the trustees of PSC must now go before the New York Supreme Court to obtain permission to violate the terms of the Smith will.

Hopefully, the Agnon School trustees have executed a gift instrument that does not specify renaming the school as part of the donor recognition for the gift. If this is the case, then these trustees or any future trustees may change the name of the school for any reason, anytime in the future. It is more likely, however, that the gift instrument does discuss donor recognition. Actually, if there is nothing in writing about Agnon’s decision to change the school’s name to Mandel, I would suggest that Agnon put into writing that the donor has not requested recognition in the form of naming the institution.

Assuming the name change is part of the gift, then the trustees should read the recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy by Doug White. In this editorial, White makes a plea to drop the perpetuity idea. This is an idea that I support.

The need for funds for our charitable institutions is unlimited. Naming rights are a strong inducement for donors, and giving up those rights in perpetuity is just not good business. Agnon should create a contract with the Mandel family that calls for the school to maintain the Mandel name for not less than some specified time, say 50 years or so. This would allow the school to maintain the name indefinitely, but also have the option in 50 years to solicit another transformative gift that is recognized by changing the institution’s name. Such a contract will provide future trustees with flexibility in fund raising and avoid costly court petitions such as that in which Paul Smith’s College is involved.