After Smithsonian Loses Oceans Gift, Board to Review Donation Process

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Smithsonian Board of Regents is reviewing the way it handles corporate donations after the American Petroleum Institute withdrew a $5 million gift last week.

The Smithsonian solicited the gift for its Ocean Initiative, but regents questioned whether it was appropriate to accept money for a marine science enterprise from a group supported by hundreds of oil companies. The regents, the Smithsonian's governing board, approves large gifts. The Washington Post reported the controversy last week.

Roger W. Sant, a regent who led the debate about the gift, said he took some of the blame for the outcome. He said he should have made his misgivings known sooner. "We discussed today how to put a process in place so it doesn't get this far before a question is raised, " Sant said.

The petroleum institute canceled the agreement on Friday, days before the regents were going to vote on whether to accept the gift.

Part of the new approach would be to ask questions and to open dialogue with the donor about concerns earlier in the negotiations. "Many corporate folks don't actually want to play out their gift on the front page of the nation's capital newspaper. I am being blunt here. I think that all donors expect the principal stakeholders to engage and consider how to match their mission with the donors. This was playing out in the public arena, instead of a private arena, and their withdrawal I believe was more about that," said Patricia Stonesifer, a regent. Sant added, "Our idea was to work it out."

Cristián Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, who had approved the donation, said: "Our vision for the Ocean Initiative is still very strong. We are confident that we will be able to go out and find other donors to support it." He added, "I don't consider this a major setback."

Sant said the controversy had nothing to do with Samper's leadership.

At their meeting, the regents took one step toward organizing a comprehensive capital campaign. The $2.5 billion bill to repair crumbling facilities at the Smithsonian has been well-publicized and many lawmakers, most vocally Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have urged the Smithsonian leaders to find ways outside the public appropriations process to fix the problem. The regents voted yesterday to develop a framework for a business plan. "All we are talking about is when, not if," Stonesifer said.

This would not be strictly a building repair fund, Sant said, but the money raised would go both to facilities and to program deficits.

The Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its budget from Congress; the rest is raised in the private sector.

Samper said general fundraising in the first 10 months of 2007 brought in $166 million, which he said was $50 million over projections -- "in spite of the clearly challenging times we had related to governance," and the expectation that donors would hold back after the scandals around the departure of former Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small.

Sant said the Smithsonian endowment is now worth $1.7 billion, resulting from a 14.4 percent earnings rate so far this year.

"We are quite pleased with that outcome," Sant said.

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