Next Act: A Big Gift to Kickstart a Historic Fundraising Campaign From Outgoing NPR Chief

Sharaf Maksumov/sjhu

Sharaf Maksumov/sjhu

When Jarl Mohn assumed the CEO position at NPR in July of 2014, he readily acknowledged the litany of challenges on his docket. “Budgets are tight, there have been deficits reported for NPR, and what I hope I can do is help raise money and help the organization not just survive, but really grow and thrive in a very new and competitive media landscape,” he said at the time. Outlets like the New York Times were also quick to note that Mohn lacked significant experience in the journalism and public media fields.

Fast-forward four and a half years. Under his leadership, NPR has posted consistent surpluses, with revenues from corporate sponsorship more than doubling during his tenure. Audiences for NPR's newsmagazines are up more than 20 percent for listeners over the age of 12 from spring 2014, the last period before Mohn's appointment took effect, to this past spring. And NPR is the nation's leading podcast publisher, with 18.9 million distinct users streaming and downloading 165 million episodes each month.

In late 2018, Mohn announced he would be stepping down as CEO in June of 2019, but he isn’t going very far. Mohn will be staying at NPR as president emeritus, NPR Foundation board member, and co-chair of NPR's 50th anniversary capital campaign in 2020. Mohn will be busy in this quasi-retirement: He wants to raise more than the roughly $225 million bequeathed to NPR by Joan Kroc in 2003—the largest gift in the network’s history. He’s also leading by example. Mohn and his wife Pamela announced they would contribute $10 million toward the effort.

At first blush, these developments seem like yet another manifestation of the “Trump Bump,” a phenomenon that finds rattled donors opening their checkbooks in the aftermath of the 2016 election to strengthen besieged civic institutions like the press. More than two years later, NPR’s David Folkenflik suggests the phenomenon may be ebbing to some extent.

“It is hard to disentangle” NPR’s successes, he writes, “from its coinciding with the ascent of candidate and President Trump, which has caused a spike in interest for many major national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and cable news channels. That has softened for many such news organizations including NPR, a phenomenon associated with so-called ‘news fatigue.’”

Folkenflick has a point, but it’s also important to differentiate between the public’s exasperation with the 24-7 news cycle and donors’ inclination to support the heroic efforts of nonprofit journalism outlets. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this support has not substantially waned. The Mohns’ gift comes roughly seven months after a $10 million donation from an anonymous donor to Seattle’s KEXP and a year after Jerome L. Greene Foundation's $10 million gift to New York Public Radio.

And don’t forget: As president emeritus, Mohn hopes to raise over $200 million for NPR by “building relationships with donors who believe in the importance of NPR’s fact-based journalism and want to invest in the next chapter in the network’s history.” These are talking points straight out of the “Trump Bump” fundraising playbook, and I doubt Mohn would be leading a campaign to double NPR’s endowment if he didn’t think it was achievable in today’s philanthropic climate. (Conveniently enough, NPR’s 50th anniversary also coincides with the 2020 presidential election. How’s that for fundraising synergies?)

Mohn’s philanthropic work dates back to at least 2000, when he and Pam founded the Mohn Family Foundation. Recipients of the foundation’s largesse include the International Medical Corps and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Mohns also support Los Angeles museums, including the L.A. County Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

A couple of years ago, when looking at the Hammer Museum's Mohn Awards, I explored Mohn’s journey from seasoned radio DJ—he previously went by the stage name Lee Masters—to the world of Southern California arts philanthropy. The Mohns were inspired by the Getty Foundation-funded Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions, which brought local arts organizations together to explore subjects such as the history of art in California and the region's role as a hotbed for cutting-edge architecture.

The prizes are an attempt to support a handful of emerging artists from Los Angeles with something that is “meaningful and impactful,” Mohn said. “I was so impressed by what the institutions had done in Southern California, that everyone would work together. It was a gift to the artistic community, and that nudged me.”

Now, Mohn will be the one doing the nudging. In a note to staff, Mohn said: “My wife Pam and I are more committed than ever to helping NPR and public radio achieve long term financial stability, particularly at a time when journalism is under economic and political pressures. We are so confident in the future of this organization that we are announcing our personal donation of $10 million to NPR as well as our long term personal commitment to the organization.

“We invite others who care about quality journalism and public service to join us in investing in this remarkable institution and its journalists.”