Stop Appealing to Billionaire Egos With Naming Rights

03/12/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Lincoln Center's announcement last week that David Geffen had contributed $100 million to put his name on a concert hall put front and center how willing big nonprofits are to do anything for a buck and how much fundraisers have encouraged one of the most distressing features in our society: The extraordinarily inflated egos of America's growing number of multimillionaires and billionaires.

It's hard today to find a gymnasium, laboratory, college dorm, hospital wing, or athletic field that is not named after a benefactor.

A generation ago, streets, buildings and some public institutions were named after people who had earned their reputations and celebrity status, not just because they had lots of money. That no longer seems to be the case.

Mr. Geffen's $100-million will be used to renovate and rename Avery Fisher Hall. The family of Mr. Fisher only did so after receiving a check for $15 million. What a twist of irony. After making a charitable gift to Avery Fisher Hall, the uncharitable family had to be paid off to relinquish the Fisher name.

Lincoln Center's willingness to name the center after Mr. Geffen raises a question: His donation will amount to less than 20 percent of the total cost of renovation, so what if another person wanted to give $200 million to the hall? Would his or her name also get "naming rights"?

Is 20 percent really enough to merit a name on the front?

Several years ago Stephen A. Schwarzman gave $100 million toward the $1 billion renovation of the New York Public Library system. For this contribution, the flagship library on 5th Avenue was named after him, even though he had provided only 10 percent of the total cost of the project. When interviewed by the press, he maintained that he had not wanted the library named after him. His ego could not suppress the fact that he could have said "no".

When David Koch gave $100 million to the New York State Theater, he saw to it that the theater was renamed for him. He magnanimously said that the State Theater could be renamed after 50 years but that his family should first be asked if it wanted to continue the gift and the tradition. Mr. Geffen, on the other hand, insisted that his name adorn Avery Hall in perpetuity.

Mr. Geffen, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, and many other very wealthy donors can't seem to get enough of themselves. Would they be giving so prolifically were their names not attached to their gifts? Where do they set the limits of giving, below which they do not insist on attaching their names?

In Washington, the billionaire David Rubenstein has donated relatively small amounts to the Washington Monument, the Robert E. Lee house, and the purchase of the Magna Carta. We are fortunate we don't have to see his name plastered on those gifts.

Whatever happened to anonymous giving? Satisfaction at giving to a good cause or institution seems no longer a sufficient reason for giving generously. Our increasingly money-grubbing society prizes the celebration of money and those who have plenty of it to spend publicly. Billionaire donors want us to remember them more for their money than their accomplishments. And we the public, including professional fundraisers, are encouraging their swelling egos and pushy self -glorification.

Reputable institutions of learning and culture appear to be enhancing this deplorable development in charitable fundraising. They can't say no to unreasonable demands of donors. They are willing to sell out their traditions, loyal past donors, and the integrity of their institutions.

And we, the public, allow this to happen. It's a sad state of affairs, even for our money-oriented society.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.