Fundraising 101

If you guys remember, I was stunned that NPR's fundraising folks met with a alleged donor without much background work. Apparently I shouldn't have been. It happens all the time:


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.

I like to think that someone offering me a five million dollar donation, with no records of past giving would be red flag for me. But I don't work in the business, so maybe not. I also mentioned my suspicion that O'Keefe had tried elsewhere and likely failed. To wit:

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.

Presumably Reddington said nothing that either was inflammatory, or could be edited to sound inflammatory. But he did take the meeting. So on that point, I was wrong.

It reminds me of the various fraud memoirs which have hit publishers over the past couple decades. You'd assume they employ fact-checkers. But often--if not mostly--they don't. Indeed, sometimes they don't even have a face-to-face meet with the author.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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