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College’s gift acceptance policy called into question over NRA president’s donation


By Emma Friedlander 

Following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, members of the Grinnell community have discussed monetary donations provided by Grinnell resident Pete Brownell, President of the National Rifle Association (NRA), to Grinnell College. Even before the tragedy earlier this month, however, a group of concerned alumni began to call on the College to revise its gift acceptance policy.

The College gift acceptance policy has two guiding principles: “Grinnell College seeks to only accept those gifts that have a reasonable expectation of ultimately benefiting the College” and “Grinnell College seeks to only accept gifts that are in the philanthropic interest of the donor. Grinnell College shall not encourage any gifts that are inappropriate in light of the donor’s disclosed personal or financial situation.” Currently, this policy lacks a provision for refusing to accept gifts that conflict with the College’s mission or ethical standards, although this principle is found in the gift acceptance policies of comparable institutions such as Smith College, College of William and Mary, St. Olaf College and Colorado College, among others.

The Office of Development and Alumni Relations and the board of trustees communicated to The S&B that evaluation of the current policy is underway, although further details were not provided.

In an email to The S&B, Adam Laug, director of development, clarified that the process for accepting alumni and non-alumni gifts are the same. He also confirmed that corporate and private citizen gifts are evaluated equally, and that the College has no precedent for refusing gifts because of their political or business connections. As demonstrated in the second guiding principle of the gift acceptance policy, the personal situation of a donor is only considered when it means financial or personal complications for said donor.

Alana Smart ’68, co-chair of Colorado Faith Communities United Against Gun Violence and the spokesperson for the group of concerned alumni who called on President Kington to revise the College’s gift acceptance policy in relation to Brownell, first became concerned about this policy discrepancy in December of 2016.

“I was contacted by a member of [the Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence] who’d been contacted by Iowans for Gun safety, and they were very concerned about this pattern of donations that Brownell was making throughout the state to arts and education organizations,” Smart said.

After learning that Brownell funds Grinnell College programs, most recently the Ignite Program, Smart sent her annual contribution to the College along with a letter expressing her concern about Brownell’s donation and asking for clarification on the College’s gift acceptance policy. In response, Smart was contacted in January 2017 by Nihad Heto ’05, the assistant director of development at the time, to set up a meeting about the donation and the policy.

“[Heto] told me he could not disclose the amount of the donation, that was just an overall policy,” Smart said. “He said it was a personal donation from the husband and wife, not a corporate donation. … He did acknowledge at the time that the College is unlikely to accept donations from an entity like Big Tobacco.”

On June 27 of this year, Kington sent a reply to the alumni wherein he recognized the lack of a principle regarding the mission value of gifts and assured them that the College would research other university and college gift policies over the summer and bring the question to the Board of Trustees. One month later, the alumni wrote back to Kington, asking to establish a contact person to keep abreast of the proposed process and urging Kington to expedite the process. So far Kington has not established any further communication with the alumni, and did not respond for comment to The S&B this week. All three pieces of correspondence between the alumni and Kington can be found in the opinions section of this week’s S&B.

For the alumni and community members calling upon the College to reconsider its monetary ties to Brownell, the issue is not about the Second Amendment or free speech, but instead about the College’s promotion of a public health policy in line with its mission and donors who reflect the College’s values. Of special concern to the alumni was the use of Brownell’s involvement with Grinnell College as a way to promote the NRA, as demonstrated in an NRA Explore article about Brownell and the College (-although mention of the College was recently expunged from the article).

“There’s no way to talk about Pete Brownell as just a private citizen,” Smart said. He’s a major donor to the NRA, at the $500,000 plus level, and is president. Given that the College has indicated that they would not accept Big Tobacco money because of the public health implications, why in god’s name would they be accepting dollars from the NRA leader when we have a [gun violence] public health epidemic in this country? I personally feel … the College should return the donation, because it’s clear from Pete Brownell’s comments in the NRA Explore article that he was using the College to advance the NRA’s agenda. It wasn’t pure philanthropy.”

The anecdotes about Grinnell College in the NRA Explore article included comments about Brownell’s ability to “offset the previous anti-gun sentiment” at Grinnell and about professors who “felt giddy” after a day at the local shooting range, until all references to Grinnell College disappeared off of the website last week.

These charts represent the number of individuals who donated as alumni versus nonalumni and to restricted versus unrestricted funds in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017.

In fiscal year 2017, Grinnell College received a total of $32,837,711 in commitments. These gifts were provided by 10,540 total individuals, comprised of 6589 alumni and 3951 non-alumni. 7002 donors made an unrestricted (Pioneer Fund) donation, while 3538 made a restricted donation to be used in a particular program, of which Brownell and his wife Helen Redmond’s Ignite Program donation is one example.

“I think we’re hoping that President Kington will respond at this time thanks to your shedding light on this issue,” Smart said. “At that time we will evaluate our next steps.”

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  • E

    Eliza WillisOct 31, 2017 at 11:19 am

    These contrasting reactions to the S&B article point to the need for a campus debate on the question of accepting gifts from Mr. Brownell. Those who oppose the college accepting these gifts have concerns about aspects of his business and his association with the NRA, and worry that the college may be seen as approving these controversial activities. Raising the question of the suitability of these gifts should not be construed as a personal attack but as an argument about guiding principles. I hope we will have a public discussion on campus of this disagreement in the coming weeks.

    Eliza Willis
    Professor of Political Science

  • S

    Samuel A. RebelskyOct 28, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    As a long-term faculty member and community member, I find myself concerned by the simplistic and reductionist approach taken in this column and elsewhere. Pete Brownell makes an incredibly positive impact on our community and does so independent of his role in the NRA. You can find my more extended commentary on this issue at

  • J

    Jan GleiterOct 27, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    As one of the Class of ’68 alumni deeply concerned about the enormous power of the NRA and its eagerness to use that power to further its own goals at the expense of everyone who opposes them, I have determined that I am being forced to choose between helping the NRA via helping Grinnell financially and protecting American citizens. Because Brownell and the NRA are exploiting Brownell’s relationship with Grinnell College, and the college is allowing them to do this, I cannot in good conscience continue to make donations to the school. The NRA, which made many noises about opposing bump stocks, is actually wielding its power to oppose legal bans on them. This kind of two-faced behavior will only continue. Grinnell College must distance itself from Pete Brownell, who has no standing as a private citizen because of his powerful role in a very public threat.