Whose Money Is Freedom Forum Spending?

NEAL R. PEIRCE

May 04, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Publishing tycoon Allen Neuharth's $700 million ''Freedom Forum,'' the foundation that proclaims its mission is to defend the First Amendment, has been getting some sharp stings from the free press it's pledged to protect.

A spate of critical articles surfaced almost as soon as the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in late March that the New York state attorney general was looking into allegedly ''excessive and imprudent'' Freedom Forum spending.

And the details were, in fact, rather compelling.

In 1991, the Freedom Forum spent $34.4 million on administrative and operating expenses -- 70 percent more than its $20.2 million in contributions and grants, far out of line with normal foundation practices.

Trustees of the charity get all-expenses paid trips for board meetings in such spots as Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, in February; New Orleans in the week of NCAA basketball finals; Canada in August; Rio de Janeiro during carnival, plus Honolulu, Santa Fe and Hong Kong.

The trustees in 1991 were compensated a median of $70,000 -- seven times the national median of trustees who receive any pay at all. Mr. Neuharth himself was paid $131,000.

Well, what does it matter? Isn't the Freedom Forum -- the name Neuharth gave the old Gannett Foundation when he cut its ties with its parent corporation in 1991 -- a free and independent fund?

And as long as a foundation has a good complement of programs, shouldn't it be left alone? It is true that the Freedom Forum sponsors many journalism scholarships, especially for minorities. It's helped Eastern European newspapers get computers and information systems. It founded and supports a center for advanced study of mass communications and media technology at Columbia University.

So if the Freedom Forum squanders a big chunk of its money on such ventures as its ostentatious multimillion dollar offices just outside Washington, or a $245,500 check to ex-hostage Terry Anderson, or mounting a huge ''Freedom Works'' poster in Moscow's Red Square, or publications higher on glitz than substance, is that a public concern at all?

Do the rest of us have a gripe if the Freedom Forum, which Al Neuharth says stands for ''free press, free speech and free spirit,'' in fact grants $325,000 to aid retired, destitute baseball players and their widows, or showers money on the favored personal charities of its trustees?

Well, yes. Because in part, it's our money. In Europe or Asia, vast fortunes like the Gannett earnings that built the Freedom Forum would long since have been taxed away by government. We Americans figure government is neither very creative nor trustworthy, so we allow tax-free treatment of money handled by foundations and other charities. But we still have legitimate interest in how the money gets spent. One wouldn't want to regulate foundations' ideas. But there's civic value in debating how creative they are.

The Freedom Forum case is especially sad because this very same foundation, back in the days it still modestly called itself the Gannett Foundation, was pioneering some of the most thoughtful, meaningful forms of giving in American philanthropy. was a national leader in efforts to promote literacy.It made journalism education a major thrust. And working closely with the Gannett Co., Inc.'s dozens of newspapers, radio and television and outdoor advertising operations, it crafted one of the 1980s' most imaginative efforts to relate big money and big power to grass-roots America.

Called the Community Priorities Program, it encouraged each Gannett operation to assemble a cross section of responsible community leaders to assess priority local needs. Then local organizations were asked to submit two-page applications on how they'd tackle one of the problems named -- homelessness or teen-age pregnancy, AIDS or a lack of day care, for example. Then the team at the paper or station picked the one proposal it found the most promising and submitted it for the Gannett Foundation's national competition.

Awards were modest (normally $25,000 to $150,000), went to communities (many small cities) across America, and often in cluded a way for the local Gannett personnel to use their special skills to help make each program work. Newspapers learned things about their own cities they'd never known before.

JTC The fancy words for that are leveraging and capacity-building. And they're no joke. They're the way a wounded society starts to get its act together. The old Gannett Foundation administered the program with loving care, honestly and regularly evaluating the grantees' and its own performance. The community-needs assessment it developed was so powerful that the United Way began to introduce it to community organizations across the country.

But when Al Neuharth took over the foundation, the Community Priorities Program died. For a showboater, the program was probably just too tame.

The only solace is that the Gannett Co., Inc., to its credit, has launched a $4 million-a-year community-grants program, albeit without the competitive feature, for cities with Gannett operations.

But the truly inventive program is gone, and American communities are the losers. Instead, the Freedom Forum offers us (along with some worthwhile programs) a disturbing picture of extravagant salaries and perks, high-powered and self-serving promotion, and breast-beating about the First Amendment.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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