Nearly five years after a $500,000 donation to the University of Wisconsin tennis program, a family is attempting to get its money back, claiming the university misused it in a violation of donor intent.
Richard Coyle’s family donated the money in June 2016 following a statement in his late mother Marion Lou Coyle’s will to “fund the UW tennis program.” More specifically, she intended it to fund tennis scholarships as a way to honor Douglas Coyle, her late husband and Richard’s father, who attended UW-Madison on a tennis scholarship in the 1930s and dedicated much of his life to bringing opportunities to young tennis players.
Marion Lou Coyle’s motives were never formally documented, however, and the money was eventually used to renovate the athletic department’s outdoor tennis facilities. Like her will, the bequest itself also designated only to be “used for the support” of the university’s “tennis program.”
“We didn’t want to pour concrete,” Coyle said. “We wanted to enrich lives.”
Coyle said the Marion Lou Coyle Trust donated to the UW Foundation, UW-Madison’s official, private fundraising and gift-receiving entity, to assure oversight of how the money was used. He remembers an initial phone call informing the Foundation about the money in July 2015, when he was told the money could be used for scholarships, and a visit with Wisconsin tennis coaches in October 2015, but there is no official record of any such conversations.
He learned years later that he was mistaken and that the money was actually under the purview of the System Trust, which is overseen by the Board of Regents.
“The Foundation says it’s not responsible because the money is sent over to the Trust, and the Trust says they’re not responsible because it started with the Foundation,” Coyle said. “We’re kind of in no man’s land.”
In an email statement, UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said Coyle’s information is inaccurate. Because the language in the bequest said it should be distributed to the “University of Wisconsin, currently located in Madison, Wisconsin,” Lucas said it was made to the university and never the Foundation. Per System policy, UW-Madison rerouted the money to the Trust and complied with the bequest to “ensure that their intended uses match the university’s need and ultimate use,” he said.
“We regret that the donor’s family has a misperception of the university’s actions in this matter, but we continue to be grateful for the gift and the passionate support for UW-Madison’s tennis programs,” Lucas said.
For years following the donation, Coyle believed the university would use the money to fund student scholarships. In 2020, he began working with third-party organizations to submit open records requests to track down the money. He learned that, soon after the donation, the athletic department asked the Board of Regents to exempt the gift from the System’s policy on large unendowed gifts.
Endowed funds are held in perpetuity by a university to invest and accumulate over time. Conversely, unendowed gifts over $250,000 automatically become Board-designated endowments, meaning “only the income from the gift is made available for expenditure.”
“The improved outdoor tennis complex will provide a wonderful opportunity for us to recognize the donor in a place where others can enjoy the sport that brought him such joy,” UW-Madison athletic director Barry Alvarez wrote in a letter to the chancellor and UW trust funds director in September 2016. “As an aside, UW men’s and women’s tennis scholarships are funded by a significant number of sport-specific endowed funds and annual gifts. The facility project is the greatest need for our tennis program.”
Alvarez added that Coyle had “indicated support” for designating the gift to facilities needs. Lucas also said in his emailed statement that athletics staff were in touch with the Coyle family, including in-person visits, phone calls and emails in which they “expressed personal support and enthusiasm” for using the gift toward stadium renovations. Coyle denies that was the case.
The Board of Regents’ business and finance committee granted Alvarez’s request in October 2016, and the UW-Madison athletic department announced the donation as a gift for an existing campaign to raise $2.5 million.
“Perhaps the school was not required to issue a gift agreement, notify the donor, or obtain written consent. But it could have done any of those things,” Coyle wrote in a letter to various media and philanthropic organizations in February. “Their own beliefs, statements, and principles suggest they should have done those things. But they did not.”
Coyle sent correspondence requesting a full refund of the $500,000 to UW Foundation, System and UW-Madison leadership in June 2019 and October 2020, as well as to the Board of Regents in March 2020, according to his letter. None of the organizations or individuals have responded, he said.
Recovering the funds will be difficult without explicit documentation of donor intent, according to “The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving,” a report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The October 2020 report characterizes the System’s stewardship policies as “lax” andcites the Coyle family gift as a case study on the importance of donor specificity.
“Had the original donor expressed in writing that the bequest was solely for the purpose of funding tennis scholarship, UW would likely not have been able to expedite using the funds for a capital project instead,” the report authors wrote. “Although a written gift agreement with clear instructions is not an absolute guarantee that donor intent will be honored, it makes it much more likely.”
In his letter, Coyle said refunding the donation would be a way to “honor” its own stewardship policies. He added that the System can collaborate with external and philanthropic organizations to expand or “redefine stewardship in reasonable, pragmatic and mutually beneficial terms.”
“We just want the money back, quite frankly, so we can enrich people’s lives elsewhere,” Coyle said. “Wisconsin says they don’t need the money? Fine. They should have told us that four years ago.”