June 09, 2011

The Real Lessons of the NPR Scandal—From the Fund Raiser at the Center

Ronald J. Schiller, who abruptly left his job as the radio network's senior fund raiser after an undercover video was released of his conversation with two men he thought were donors, worries that nonprofit officials will take the wrong lesson from his experience, especially if they completely avoid talking to donors about sensitive topics like race, religion, and politics. Such caution, he says, could ultimately cause nonprofits to lose big gifts.

While it was the critical things he said about members of Tea Party and other topics that caused him to leave his own job, he told a meeting of fund raisers in Tampa this week that avoiding hot-button issues interferes with the frank and open communications that are essential in building the relationships that lead to big gifts.

"Donors want to talk to real people," said Mr. Schiller. "Credibility involves more than sound bites."

He also said that bland "institution speak" can insult donors' intelligence, and avoiding complicated, controversial subjects can make donors feel a sense of condescension.

At the same time, fund raisers should listen carefully to themselves and watch out for personal biases, he advised, "but not to the point of being inauthentic." Fund raisers, he told a conference organized by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, should build trust with donors by being honest, not by avoiding complicated issues.

"You will run into awkward situations," Mr. Schiller said, but fund raisers "must connect with donors as human beings with two-way authenticity.”

Although the video flap also cost Mr. Schiller a job he had been planning to take at the Aspen Institute, he says he has not lost his optimism or his belief that most interactions with donors are likely to be positive. “I don’t want to change this about myself,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Schiller's departure, some commentators, including those on the political right, have wondered whether everyone was too hasty in responding to the release of the videotape, which appears to have been edited to take Mr. Schiller's comments out of context.

As for Mr. Schiller, his optimism has been rewarded—and fund raisers looking to move into a new job may want to make friends with him. He is now a headhunter, working as vice president of business development at Lois L. Lindauer Searches, a Boston company that specializes in searches for nonprofit fund raisers.

And his boss at NPR, Vivian Schiller (no relation to Mr. Schiller), who also lost her job after the video sting, has just landed a new position. Last week she was named chief digital officer at NBC News.