If Hollywood ever remakes a Three Stooges movie, Brandeis University should get a leading role.

The school’s decision to shutter its art museum and peddle its artwork is a knuckleheaded move worthy of Moe, Larry and Curly, making a hash of the trust of givers who gave dollars and art to the school.

Panicked by the plunge in the value of its endowment because of the collapsing economy and, apparently, losses from funds it invested with disgraced investor Bernard Madoff, the school’s move is a crass poke in the eye of its supporters.

Givers give because they trust charities to use their gifts the way the givers intend and expect them to be used.

Precisely because the economic crisis is putting them under growing financial stress, nonprofits need to be clear-headed, ethical and vigilant in honoring the intent of their givers and steering clear of ham-fisted moves like the one Brandeis aims to pull off.

The intent of givers matters: Princeton, for example, recently agreed to pay nearly $100 million in settling a lawsuit by a donor’s family that had charged the school violated the terms of a gift by failing to use the money for the purpose for which it was given.

Now, by shutting its museum and hawking for quick cash a collection of artworks that were intended to be perpetual gifts, Brandeis has become a role model for nonprofits behaving badly.

Giving is the lifeblood of nonprofits, and it is rooted in trust.

To survive the deepening financial crisis, nonprofits must work harder than ever to earn and keep the trust of their givers.

But if, like bumbling fools, they whack their givers upside the head, nonprofits will shoot themselves in the heart.

imageTodd Cohen, a veteran news reporter and editor, is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. Cohen has taught nonprofit reporting and media relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and regularly speaks on the topics of nonprofit media relations and trends in the charitable world.