NPR’s Fortunes Changed By Billions And Billions Sold

Last month there was an interesting story in the Washington Post about the $220 million bequest left to NPR 20 years ago by Joan Kroc, widow of former McDonalds CEO Ray Kroc.  What I found interesting was that while the money helped to expand NPR’s capacity in a very real way, it has also been something of a double edged sword when it comes to additional fundraising.

NPR spent some of the money, but put about $194 million into an endowment from which they have drawing off the interest. However, because NPR constantly expresses their gratitude for a gift which significantly impacted the direction of their organization, 20 years later people think Kroc is continuing to give money and there is no reason to make a donate themselves. Similarly, Congress cites the gift, questioning why NPR continues to need money.

“Kroc’s bequest has also periodically been invoked by congressional Republicans and conservatives intent on cutting the federal government’s annual outlay to public radio and TV. Most of those funds go to member stations; NPR receives almost no direct federal support. But that nine-figure gift from a multibillionaire remains a politically potent talking point.”

It raises something of a quandary about how do you appropriately acknowledge the generosity of a large, but one time gift, without dissuading others to donate as years pass. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Joan Kroc herself could have potentially been dissuaded from making her gift if she learned another had made a significant donation because she shared a common confusion about NPR’s identity.

Ken Stern, a veteran public radio executive who once served as NPR’s chief executive, wrote in 2013. Joan Kroc, he wrote, “frequently confused NPR (as many people do) with other public media organizations ranging from PBS to BBC to other public radio producers.”

Indeed, Kroc had apparently intended to make a donation to PBS, but her staff couldn’t ever get someone on the phone so she instructed them to move on.

As you might imagine, the NPR staff thought fondly of McDonald for a time after receiving the gift. The last line of the Post article says they enjoyed Big Macs on the day they announced receipt of Joan Kroc’s gift back in 2003.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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