The Long Shadow of ‘The Last Tycoon’

MissionsProgramsHere’s a business model that’s currently in vogue at National Geographic: Set up a separate division dedicated to the Society’s core mission, and then spend millions of dollars to support scientists and explorers whose good works “inspire people to care about the planet.” Although this division (Mission Programs) doesn’t make any money, it does burnish the Brand — a warm glow you can pack into a lavishly illustrated annual report (left) which can then be used for fundraising.* You might call this The Joan Kroc Strategy (after the woman who dropped more than $200 million on NPR): Highlight the halo that hovers above your organization — and then pray for manna to fall from heaven.

Twenty years ago, this strategy might have worked for National Geographic. Back then, NGS had a spotless, seamless, non-profit, educational, do-gooder face it could present to philanthropists. The Society was unambiguously non-profit but not anymore.

Today, National Geographic has a non-profit and a for-profit side. It’s a diversified company that sells everything from magazines to travel tours to food to wristwatches to bedroom furniture. Such product diversification isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, the Society’s operating budget has to come from somewhere. But the resulting financial tangle is something only an accountant could fully understand. And that’s bad news for the Society’s fundraisers.

rupert_murdochWhy? Because any potential donor who is asked to make a big gift will no doubt review the Society’s financial structure, and discover that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel and its new spin-off Nat Geo Wild. Which makes Mr. Murdoch the 800-pound gorilla of National Geographic Ventures, the for-profit side of the Society.

And since the line between the Society’s for-profit and non-profit sides is a fluid one with business units often migrating from one side to the other any big donor would naturally wonder: Will that 800-pound gorilla one day get his hands on my money?

Who really knows for sure? NGS isn’t NPR. But of this we’re quite certain:

The future of our Society (and our society) can not be secured
by cultivating cozy relationships with a handful of rich people.
It can only be secured by reaching out to millions of Society members.

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* Note to the photo editor of the Mission Programs Annual Report (above): When potential donors pick up your publication, they’ll be staring through the grass at the eyeball of an animal that looks… predatory. Is that the vibe you’re shooting for?

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