The Pub #83: Why Joan Kroc gave NPR its biggest gift ever

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Kroc, Napoli’s book, and Napoli

Why did McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc leave more than $200 million of her wealth to NPR and not a cent to PBS? Because no one at PBS returned a phone call.

That’s one of the revelations reported by longtime public radio journalist Lisa Napoli in her new book, Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.

If you’re a fundraiser looking for practical lessons from this story, ALWAYS ANSWER YOUR PHONE is about all you’re going to get. Kroc’s transformative 2003 bequest was as much a fluke as it was the result of any major gift officer’s strategy.

Kroc wasn’t even much of an NPR fan. Rather she was a woman who was quickly dying and had limited time to make big decisions about her big money. When it came down to it, she remembered a meeting she’d had a few years earlier (arranged by KPBS’ Stephanie Bergsma) with NPR’s then-president, Kevin Klose.

“She was dazzled by him,” Napoli told me on The Pub. “She understood the importance of news and media in keeping a society free and democratic.”

Klose had hoped Kroc would give at the $25,000 level. His hopes were, um, exceeded.

Also on The Pub this week, we continue our conversation with UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh about whether journalists are at all different from regular people in the eyes of the law, apropos of a prosecutor’s attempt to charge Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman in connection to her Dakota Access Pipeline reporting.

In other news, The Pub is coming to Chicago! Register now to attend a living taping at the Public Media Millennials Third Coast Afterparty on Saturday, Nov. 12.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at adam@current.org or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

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Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

  • Greg Thrasher

    Did Joan Kroc’s gift to NPR require that NPR augment their racial inclusion in NPR’s executive offices?…NPR has never had a Black American as their CEO
    BLM

    • Delano Lewis, who is black, was president and CEO of NPR from 1993–98. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delano_Lewis

      • Greg Thrasher

        Thank You for this confirmation it will impact my objective in seeking more inclusive representation in the executive suite of NPR

        BLM

  • PBS alum

    Can’t wait to read this book, but the unreturned phone call(s) to PBS by Mrs. Kroc’s representative was reported by The New York Times (see below) as early as 2005, but I’m not sure if that’s the first public mention. Also, that sad fact was widely known in the PBS world and often joked about whenever we had trouble finding money for basic supplies. (“Better check your voicemail. There might be a few million there!”)

    NYT: “Had the foundation been operating several years ago, PBS might have been able to share in the bounty from Ms. Kroc. Dick Starmann, a former adviser to Ms. Kroc who helped direct her charitable giving, said he called both NPR and PBS in either late 2002 or early 2003 at Ms. Kroc’s request. At PBS, ‘I got into the electronic queue and I never got through to anyone live,’ he said. He said he left one message, perhaps two. No one responded. Ms. Mitchell of PBS said, ‘I can assure you that if the call came in today, it would go to the PBS Foundation.’
    Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/10/arts/television/public-tv-and-radio-to-receive-big-grants.html