Before I got into journalism, I worked for two years as the assistant to the president of WNYC, New York's public television and radio stations. That was 1990 to 1992, when they were still owned by the City of New York and its president, Tom Morgan, was appointed by the new mayor, David Dinkins. For about six months, Morgan detailed me to the development department. It was there that I learned the valuable lessons in fundraising basics that seem to have gone totally unheeded, unlearned or simply forgotten by the grown-ups running National Public Radio.
For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the outside consultant who enthusiastically taught us the secrets of donor cultivation. The obituaries were her first read of the morning. The richer, more connected or more famous the deceased, the better. There were estates to be approached for bequests -- but not until after a check of the will.
One afternoon, we took a field trip to the ornate Surrogates Court building across the street from the Municipal Building, where we could look up the wills of some of the Big Apple's most fabulous dead people. We could see how much they were worth, how much they left to whom and to which organizations. The knowledge gleaned there was only one step in a long process of donor cultivation. Anyone can call up and say, "Hey, I've got $5 million I want to give you. Can we have lunch?" But it is incumbent upon the institution to do due diligence.
Twenty years ago, there was no Google. You picked up the phone and you canvassed board members and friends at other institutions to see if the prospective donor is legit. You looked to see what other boards and organizations this potential benefactor is involved with. You scoured news clippings for more clues, especially hints of scandal that would make taking the donation tantamount to an endorsement of the donor's questionable dealings.
Chances are, if neither you nor your friends in well-connected development departments in your city or around the country had ever heard of the $5 million man, you probably shouldn't take the meeting. Unfortunately, all of those lessons -- and numerous Red Flags -- appear to have been completely ignored by Ron Schiller, the now-former president of the NPR Foundation and senior vice president for development for NPR, and Betsy Liley, senior director of institutional giving.
Red Flag No. 1: They accepted a meeting with a Muslim philanthropy called the Muslim Education Action Center. As reaction to tomorrow's hearings by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on "radical Islam" show, anything connected to Muslims is a lightning rod. Throw in a philanthropy and all hell could break loose with questions about where the money comes from. Did NPR not pay attention to the controversy that engulfed Park 51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque that is really a cultural center in the style of the famed 92nd Street Y in Manhattan? King raised questions about Park 51's funding then, by the way.
Red Flag No. 2: At the lunch, one of the men says MEAC is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. That should have been Schiller's and Liley's cue to skedaddle. The Muslim Brotherhood has been in the news of late because of fears on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the radical group would gain power in Egypt during last month's uprising. Combine that with this statement on the MEAC website -- "share our philosophical approach to the spread of Islam and the establishment of Sharia worldwide" -- and the NPR fundraisers should have been out the door.
Red Flad No. 3: They engaged in a conversation about the Tea Party and its impact on the Republican Party and U.S. politics. Any skillful fundraiser should know how to handle this dicey topic without being rude to his host or potentially endangering his institution. But not Schiller.
Red Flag No. 4: The donors provided transportation for them, a stretched limousine. This one is minor in comparison to the others, but nevertheless instructive. Schiller and Liley should have declined the offer of transportation -- in their own city, no less. And a stretched limo? Put aside the high cheesiness factor here. Such wheels for just two people would make me question the financial management of this foundation.
NPR has been under fire for decades from Republicans and conservatives, who would love nothing more than to zero out its budget. With the GOP now back in power in the House, you'd think the folks on McPherson Square would be just a smidge more savvy about doing things that would give Republicans the ammunition needed to sink them.
The firing of Juan Williams in the run-up to the midterm elections was strike one against NPR for Republicans and conservatives. This latest undercover sting operation from James O'Keefe, who took down ACORN in a similar manner, very well might be strikes two and three. The one thing Schiller said that I thought was smart was his assertion that NPR would be better off without federal funding. Thanks to him and Liley, that day might come sooner than NPR wants.