WHEN he signed the giving pledge, a campaign to encourage the rich to give much of their wealth to good causes, David Rockefeller wrote that effective philanthropy “requires patience to deal with unexpected obstacles; patience to wait for the slight stirring of change; and patience to listen to the insights and ideas of others.” One of the most thoughtful philanthropists of his era, the grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, who died last year aged 101, mainly gave to institutions he was very familiar with, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was co-founded by his mother and where he was chairman of the board, or the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank whose board he also chaired for years. He knew how to talk to these institutions and how to listen.

Lack of communication seems to have been the cause of the acrimonious row between the University of Chicago and the Pearson family, which in 2015 pledged to give to the university $100m in several instalments, the second-largest gift in its history at the time. By June last year the Pearsons declined to pay the fourth instalment of $13m. Seven months later they filed a lawsuit asking for all of the $22.9m they had paid so far to be returned. On April 5th the university filed a countersuit for failure to pay the latest instalment. It is also seeking for the Pearson suit to be dismissed.

Thomas and Timothy Pearson, who are twins, hail from Iowa and have no previous connection to the University of Chicago. They picked the school over around a dozen others because of its reputation for rigorous quantitative research and academic excellence. The midwestern businessmen had a clear idea of what they wanted: the creation of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and the establishment of the Pearson Global Forum, a yearly high-calibre gathering of the great and the good in the field of conflict resolution. They stipulated the appointment of a distinguished academic as the institute’s director, who is to hold a professorship named after Richard Pearson, the twins’ father and a Methodist minister, as well as the endowment of three other professorships named after members of the Pearson clan.

None of this has happened as promised, say the Pearsons. In their suit they claim that the university “failed to deliver on the most fundamental of its obligations” such as the appointment of a director at the institute to run the day-to-day operations, the creation of an original academic curriculum, the appointment of “pre-eminent individuals” to the professorships in their name and the creation of the first Pearson Global Forum, which was to be held later this year. Jeremy Manier, a spokesman for the University of Chicago, says the claims are “meritless”. The case will probably focus on whether the university met all its obligations before the Pearsons refused to pay the fourth instalment of their gift. Mr Manier maintains it did, but no administrative director of the institute has been appointed yet.

As agreements between donors and beneficiaries become more complicated, more such conflicts are likely, predicts Richard Mittenthal of the TCC Group, a consultant for foundations and non-profit organisations. Donors who made fortunes in business are used to complex legal agreements and expect to get their way. They have a sense of ownership, especially when their name is attached to the creations their gifts make possible.