5/23/13

The Politics of Giving . . .

I got in to a bit of a "snit" with someone the other evening over a recent "scandal" (my word, not any one else's) that has come out of New York City. It seems, dear reader, that David Koch has resigned from the board of WNET-TV (New York City's Public Television station).

While the specifics of him quitting are not entirely clear (one piece I read argued it could be based on his interest in buying other media outlets and the conflict of interest that might arise) it is widely speculated that he removed his name from the trustee list over some programming that he felt (rightfully so, I might add) poked him directly in his eye and - in doing so - took delight in biting the hand that was feeding the station and PBS at large. You can read a fantastic piece in The New Yorker for background. You can also listen to an interview with the always living Diane Rehm (which aired on NPR, a "kindred spirit" to PBS, I might point out). For that matter you can watch the entire documentary that is believed to be the "last straw" here as well. But don't do ANY of that yet - stay with ME, pally-boy!

Now - many of you may be wondering - who is David Koch. Good. The less you know, the better, because this story - in my opinion - is not really "about" David Koch. I'll clarify that he's a billionaire (many times over) and that he has substantial corporate and political interests and involvements and that, perhaps as importantly, he is a genuine, marked, and unquestioned philanthropist (you can question his motives but the checks have never bounced). That is technically all you need to know about David Koch because, for me, the story here is not about him quitting it is about expectations. For the point of my easy point making - let's pretend that the rich dude in question is John Smith (and not even the famous one). Yes? Good? Good. Let's go.

SO - John Smith is worth $34B. He has given at least $23MM to public television in the last 15 years or so. He was in negotiations to give another "seven figure" gift in the near future (according to one source). Money, I might add, that is sorely needed by public broadcasting. I don't care if you believe tax dollars should support public broadcasting (like I do) or that they should not (like Mitt Romney does (meh)) - let's agree that in lieu of governmental funding we (the concerned and supportive public (listeners and viewers)) need to give money otherwise, the programming we love goes away. I don't know about any of you but I, unlike John Smith, can not give $24MM - $99MM in a 20 year span to public broadcasting (as much as I would love to). As a matter of fact - statistically - just 1% of 1% of the nation's population could. And very few of them (1% of the 1% of the 1%?) DO! And for that - I truly thank them. I don't care their motives or their wants or what they feel they are entitled to . . . I want the content they fund.

BUT there are people that SHOULD care what they want, what they are motivated by and what they are entitled to - the development staff and leadership of outlets taking the money. Plain and simple. It starts and stops with them. I have dabbled in development. I've made "the ask" plenty of times and I've sat across from very wealthy people and asked for their money . . . it is HARD. Because you know that they know that they know that you know that they know that you know that they don't have to give their money to you - they could give it to ANYONE. But you have to go in with ethics, a clear ask, a strategy for what is "in it" for them that meets everyone's expectations, and that is in line with the mission and vision of the organization. It is not up to THEM (as the Scrooge McDucks that might otherwise swim in their golden coins) to be the heavy on all that. They sign the checks and enjoy whatever comes back from it. And SOMETHING comes back from it. It might be warm and fuzzies. It might be tax benefits. It might be knowing they are creating jobs and opportunities. It might be the furthering of a mission that needs extension. It might be all of the above. It might be that they simply expect to not have their home address criticized in a way that makes them look like all that is wrong in America as relates to tossing around money for influence.

It should NOT because they know they can have edit and review privileges on a piece or content or that they can record a disclaimer or a criticism of the program that airs in conjunction with the programming. If you - as the asker - can't prevent every bit of the above and manage the expectations all the way around and work with the leadership of the organization to (while not interfering with journalistic integrity on the other side of the house) ensure that your donors are not trashed in the finished product - you are not good at what you do. Plain and simple.

NO small bakery can sell cupcakes and mock every one of their clients and their "need" for another cupcake and expect to thrive and grow as a business. No small bakery can custom make every single product for the client and expect to grow and thrive. Small businesses have to hit that sweet spot (see - bakery, sweet spot, that's PUNNY, yo) between the wants and needs of the customers and the wants and needs of the business owner. Development for a non-profit is not much different. It simply is not. You can't take John Smith's cupcake money and mumble about him being fat on his way out. Why? John Smith can get a cupcake ANY WHERE. Literally. He's got $34BB. He can have Betty Friggin' Crocker herself exumed, re-animated, and put to work (was she a real person?) on a cupcake if he wants to. He might never get that cupcake but he can TRY.

David Koch (let's go back to him for a second) essentially "owns" Lincoln Center and most of the artistic pursuits that are in residence there. Why? Because he loves classical music (or so I've read) and orchestras hardly ever perform concertos that mock him from the string section. He can feel good and do well while giving to an orchestra.

And John Smith can do the same with an orchestra, public television, setting up a C-PAC, Super-PAC, corporation, advocacy group, think tank, hired assassin, shaved ice stand, mini-golf course, office tower or Betty Friggin' Crocker Bakery. It is his money. He can give it (or not) how he wants and he can get (or not) what he wants in return.

I'm running long here (wake up - I'm still typing) but the point is this . . . if there is a bad guy in all of this it is WNET-TV. They took money from FOUR directors who lived in (or had people in their family that do) a specific address and then they aired a piece (that they could have avoided or pre-empted - NOT destroyed or interfered with) that talked about that address like it was the Bates Motel or whatever the hotel was The Shining was set it. Then they let the customer jump over the bakery counter and whip up his own cupcakes while criticizing his own paper-wrapped goodness and the ones sold before him.

What will come of all this? Well they lost at least one director and, presumably, his money. And every other rich dude (John Smith is in a minority of the minority but he is not "alone") and lass who has a choice on where to put their money (see list of options above - there may be more) will think twice about public broadcasting (radio or TV) as an option and they will, instead, get their desired reward (political influence or otherwise) in any other way they purchase. And people like you, and me, and the rest of the folks that can't write those big checks (coffee mugs or not) are going to lose the media outlets we hold most dear and have to, instead, read a paper, listen to a radio station, or watch a TV station owned by John Smith and his rich, rich, cupcake loving buddies.

I don't like David Koch's politics (I've never met him but I know folks that know him and other members of the Koch family and they seem to think they are enjoyable folks in real life). I don't like that he has such an advantage over me to influence politics. I don't like that there are ways for David Koch (and George Soros and all the other men and women all over the political spectrum - this is NOT about David Koch) to use the legal and political system to then further distance their advantage. And I certainly don't like any cupcakes a billionaire baked. But I can't and won't criticize them (regardless, again, of their motives) for giving money to a cultural institution or a non-profit or medical research or whatever in a way that allows the rest of us to benefit in the long run. If we can't at least take their money with a smile and a "thank you" we can at least stop with the "rich get richer" crap that we FORCE them in to if they can't at least get the warm and fuzzies that come with a nice performance of Vivaldi while chomping on some cupcakes.