In the fundraising world, there are two verboten topics when meeting with a potential donor: religion and politics.
Former NPR chief fundraiser Ron Schiller ignored that rule when lunching with a bogus Muslim group. He tackled both topics.
And his lapse did in him and former CEO Vivian Schiller, demoralized his hard-working development team, infuriated the editorial staff, severely damaged NPR's public reputation, and provided red meat for those hungry to end taxpayer funding to public broadcasting.
He accomplished all that in a two-hour lunch meeting recorded by a hidden camera.
At the Feb. 22 meeting, Schiller began, "Now, I'll talk personally as opposed to wearing my NPR hat."
He proceeded to make – or quote without disputing – comments disparaging conservatives, Republicans and the Tea party — and repeated a widely held myth that Jews control the nation's newspapers. He did this in the company of two strangers with an organization he knew little about.
You never take off your organization's hat, said Paulette Maehara, president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Ever. (The minute those words start coming out, should be a red flag.)
"And you don't offer your personal perspective on something when you don't know the individual," Maehara said. "When you work with someone for a long time, you might offer an opinion if it is solicited. But your job is to listen and not offer personal commentary."
You would think Schiller knew that after an illustrious career as a fundraiser. At the University of Chicago, he raised $2.5 Billion in four years.
"He was a very professional fundraiser so this blew my mind," said Doug Eichten, president of DEI, a non-profit that helps public radio with fundraising. Eichten got to know Schiller during his 18-month tenure at NPR and liked and respected him.
Schiller's former job is one of the toughest fundraising jobs in the country because NPR constantly faces potential conflicts with member stations that control its board. Wherever NPR tries to raise money, it is in some station's backyard and thus appears to be cherry picking that station's donors.
Schiller found a way to successfully collaborate with stations, said Eichten.
"I've tried to help NPR before with the stations and it's always failed," Eichten said. "Ron engaged all kinds of wonderful people. The stations liked him a great deal. Everything was going right. I've been at this in public radio for a long time and I had never felt such hope with NPR working collaboratively with the stations. Vivian [Schiller] was so supportive. From the fundraising side, we very much were heading in the right direction."
And then, Ron Schiller inexplicably went rogue.
Yes, it's been shown the tapes were doctored to make Schiller's statements seem even worse than they already were – and thus to discredit NPR. One should expect that from conservative activist James O'Keefe III.
But the fact is undeniable – and Schiller admits it – that he said some egregiously offensive things.
Obviously, if Schiller and associate, Betsy Liley, hadn't been duped into meeting with the fake Muslim Educational Action Center, this wouldn't be an issue.
But they did meet. Listeners and NPR staffers repeatedly have asked: Why did they take the meeting? What kind of vetting does NPR's development team do?
"I am extremely concerned about the quality of the people employed in development at NPR," commented Gail Anderson on NPR.org. "Even a rookie in the field knows that you do not meet with any prospective donor without vetting them first."
Some in NPR's development office have criticized me for not asking about vetting when I questioned them in a previous column. I should have.
In the last few days, I've spoken with a half-dozen fundraising professionals about industry best practices for vetting new donors.
Not one suggested that NPR should not have met with a prospective supporter. In fact, it is standard in the vetting process to meet and learn more about a potential donor's interests and how they might align with the organization's mission.
But there were red flags that should have informed how Schiller and Liley behaved at the luncheon. [Liley is on paid administrative leave. A second O'Keefe audiotape of Liley phone calls dropped today.]
When a call came in from a "Mr. Kasaam," from the Muslim Educational Action Center (MEAC) about making a grant, the development team did research.
"We ran the organization through the standard research databases but there were no records," said Jaime Porter, interim head of NPR's fundraising team, in an e-mail. "Therefore we could not determine a wealth assessment. It is standard procedure to look for an organization's total assets, types and amounts of other grants and the grant's recipients."
That could have been Red Flag #1. But as Maehara, who has spent her career professionally fundraising, noted, "It's not uncommon to go to the meeting without any information. You go to lunch to learn more about the donor. It's not necessary to have a dossier 12-inches thick." Fundraisers do most of their research for the second meeting, she added.
MEAC also had a fake website that apparently looked realistic enough for NPR to proceed. The website was changed, according to Porter, after the lunch. "My staff confirms that the website is different today than when they looked at it in mid-February," Porter said. "There was a reference to the establishment of Sharia worldwide but not to a Muslim Brotherhood."
Red Flag #2, say some fundraisers, was the eye-popping amount offered out of the blue. MEAC offered $5 million at a time when public funding is in peril. "This type of offer is quite unusual for most stations and even for NPR, especially from someone you haven't identified," said Eichten.
Red Flag #3 that should have encouraged NPR to move cautiously is that a Muslim group was offering money. The offer came just a few months after former NPR news analyst Juan Williams remarked on Fox News that he got "nervous" when he boarded an airplane and saw people wearing Muslim garb. Williams was fired last October after that remark, and the outcry has been well-publicized.
More generally, we seem to be in a period when some conservatives – but not all – are equating Muslims with terrorism and anti-Americanism in general. It's clear that O'Keefe used an alleged Muslim group for his sting in hopes of linking NPR to Muslims.
"Given the world as it is, and knowing they were meeting with a Muslim group, wouldn't that have been more incentive than normal to be prepared?" said Doug White, academic director of the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. [Read White's essay in the Chronicle of Philanthropy]
White noted that this is a particularly tough time for NPR and the 900 public radio stations in serious jeopardy of losing federal funding. "The sensitivity is public radio is liberal," said White. "The conservative Republicans are the ones who want to cut off funding. So clearly the conservative/liberal question is in the air. That should have driven them to be even more vigilant."
But it didn't. In hindsight, it seems that NPR was ripe (and still might be) for an O'Keefe set-up.
Between the Feb. 22 luncheon and March 7 – the day before the video went public – NPR tried to get the IRS documents (990s and 501C3s) from MEAC that are required before NPR could take the gift. NPR requested proof of their non-profit status, their charitable purpose and a record of donations MEAC made to other organizations. But there was no documentation.
MEAC also offered money to PBS and met with Brian J. Reddington, executive director of the PBS foundation. "Attempts to confirm the credentials of the organization proved unsatisfactory and communication was halted by PBS," said a PBS statement.
MEAC repeatedly tried to give the money to NPR, even asking to hand-deliver a $5-million check and snap a photograph with Vivian Schiller.
NPR never took the money.
Eichten's DEI is now "fast-tracking" a fundraising code of ethics for public broadcasting. Many use the Association for Fundraising Professionals' code, but Eichten wants to adapt the rules to apply directly to public broadcasting practices.
What is most troubling to me is that this could easily have been avoided, in my opinion, if the development team had reached out to NPR's crackerjack library team under the leadership of Laura Soto-Barra. There are 4 reference librarians who can find out anything about anyone.
I'm certain they could have figured out in a few hours that MEAC was bogus, and I wouldn't be writing this piece.
What happened is a serious breach of trust on so many levels. Looking forward, NPR has its work cut out in rebuilding its top executive staff, restoring public confidence in its integrity, and finding new funding sources because it looks like federal moneywill be cut, if not eliminated.
At the very least, NPR should refine its fund-raising procedures and insist that the development office run any new, unknown potential donor past NPR's librarians.