The Imus Ranch and Media Scrutiny
You use your national stature and media access to raise $100 million for charity, including over $20 million for a charity that bears your name. The Imus Ranch provides a “cowboy experience” for children with cancer and for siblings of children who died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). You and your wife donate your time and services to manage the charity, serve children, and continue fund raising efforts – all without pay. In addition, you give more than $1 million of your own money to support the charity. You also reimburse the charity for charity expenses (food, supplies, etc.) made to facilitate your service.
That’s not good enough, according to The Wall Street Journal. Your charity’s cost of service delivery is very high, it delivers services periodically (to children when schools are not in session), and you don’t reimburse the charity for nights spent on charity property when clients aren’t present.
Ten million radio listeners and 400,000 MSNBC viewers know everything about this charity. It’s been featured in Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. It’s hardly a secret. Donors are almost exclusively wealthy, with $5,000 the smallest identified giving level. You can’t hide anything even if you tried, and you’re not trying. You even broadcast – on both radio and TV – from the ranch for weeks at a time.
Welcome to the new world of charitable accountability.
Don Imus and the Imus Ranch charity only made two mistakes, but those mistakes have caused them to launch a long-term publicity counter-campaign that even includes David Boies, the superstar attorney known for clients such as Al Gore and Microsoft.
Mistake one: micromanaging the charity you have built.
Passion and intelligence are valuable, but nonprofit management is a skill that requires experience. This is especially true with multimillion dollar charities with high national visibility. The opportunities afforded by fame and access to high net worth donors come at a price that must be accounted for.
Mistake two: controlling the board of directors too closely.
Don Imus, his wife, his brother, and their two personal accountants are the only board members. Their governance structure blocks meaningful alternative perspectives on service delivery, fund raising, public perception, and fiduciary accountability. Being too insular in governance allows for quick and unified decision-making, but those decisions may be incorrect in a larger context. Charities have a responsibility to the public that the public dictates. Smart charities are aware of the changing climate and satisfy media and public demands whenever those demands are legally appropriate, and especially when they don’t hurt the charity.
Imus is right. He can reimburse the Imus Ranch for nights spent there when kids aren’t present, and he and his wife could draw reasonable salaries for their management and fund raising duties. Doing so would be worse, financially, for the charity than doing things the way they have up to now.
On the other hand, preparing the Imus Ranch for transition to a truer “public charity” status and away from its “founder’s syndrome” entrepreneurial roots would be better in the long term for the organization and for the kids it wants to serve years from now. A broader perspective and skilled experience on the board, as well as professional management and fund raising, can be phased in to secure a long, bright future that outlives the Imuses and the broadcasting career that made the Ranch possible.