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University drops fight to keep donation

MADISON, Wis. -- For two years, the University of Wisconsin's fund-raising arm risked looking greedy as it fought for another $100,000 from the estate of a donor who meant to leave the money to his once-estranged daughter.

Just as the state Supreme Court was ready to hear the case, the UW Foundation last month agreed to allow the estate of Harold Mennes to pay $100,000 to his daughter and $34,000 to her attorneys.

The case highlights a dilemma for nonprofit groups: how hard to pursue money they believe is theirs. Push too hard and they risk antagonizing potential donors, but backing off might mean they lose money for their causes.

The UW foundation's tactics drew harsh criticism from North Central Trust Co., the administrator of Mennes's estate. In July, company lawyers told the high court in a brief the foundation was "inexplicably" fighting the case even after losing several rounds. They said the litigation was draining the estate of money meant for the university and Mennes's daughter, Mary Ellen Jenson.

"If the foundation develops a reputation for needlessly engaging family members in litigation, it is less likely that people will provide for the University of Wisconsin in their estate plans," the lawyers wrote.

Jenson's lawyer, Stephen Morgan, said in a 2005 court hearing that the foundation was going against a major donor's wishes in an attempt to "have it all."

"They're trying to bypass the intention of Mr. Mennes," he said, according to a transcript.

Mennes decided he wanted to give the school most of his estate of about $800,000 to create a scholarship fund for undergraduate students in engineering.

The foundation, which manages more than $2 billion in assets, argued the university was entitled to the entire estate under Mennes's 1996 will. The document said all of his assets should be used for scholarships and not a dime should go to Jenson.

At the time, Mennes had not spoken with Jenson for years, but they reconciled and were close until his 2004 death at age 74.

Mennes decided he wanted to leave Jenson $100,000 and signed a letter explaining his intent in front of two witnesses.

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