By Paige Cornwell and Ryan Murphy
The Working Press
When Joe Skeel opened an envelope, he found a letter stating the check inside could be used to further Sigma Delta Chi Foundation’s missions.
The amount: more than $50,000.
The contributor: Craigslist, the online classified website.
Skeel, Society of Professional Journalists’ executive director, had his suspicions about the unsolicited donation. The check was sent at a time when Craigslist was receiving negative publicity for allegedly allowing sex traffickers and child pornographers to post ads on its website.
The two institutions had never corresponded, he said. His calls to the company were not returned.
The check, sent about three years ago, stayed in Skeel’s desk while he reached out to Craigslist to find out why the online website sent it.
After a month, Steve Geimann, then president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, decided to decline the contribution.
Skeel cited the Craigslist experience during the foundation board meeting Friday as an example of how the foundation handles contributions on a case-by-case basis.
That may change, as the board plans to vote in April on a gift acceptance policy outlining which types of gifts can be accepted or rejected.
The proposed policy specifies six types of gifts that may be accepted and 12 reasons why a gift may be declined.
This year’s foundation audit recommended that the board adopt a policy to make it easier for the foundation and contributors to determine what gifts are acceptable. The inclusion of a gift acceptance policy on the IRS 990 form could also improve the foundation’s rating from outside groups, Skeel said.
Reasons a gift may be declined include: if the gift could financially jeopardize the donor or SDX, if the gifts or its terms are illegal or if the conditions for accepting the gift are “not consistent with the purposes, values and objectives of SPJ and SDX,” according to the proposed policy.
Another reason a gift may be declined is if it “may result in inappropriate or undesirable publicity for SPJ or SDX,” according to the proposed policy.
Geimann said he thought the Craigslist contribution was a way for it to combat a rash of negative publicity.
“It was a non-journalism institution, and it could have been construed that they were trying to improve their image,” Geimann said. “Why would we take money that’s not from journalists?”
Board members debated whether to accept the contribution, said Sonny Albarado, SDX board member and the newly elected SPJ national president.
“It’s hard to turn down that kind of money. It’s hard to turn down any money,” Albarado said. “But, you have to have standards about who you accept money from.”
The foundation receives contributions — usually small amounts from journalists — every week, Skeel said. Larger contributions come from organizations SDX is affiliated with, like the Scripps Howard Foundation. The Craigslist check would have been a significant contribution from an unsolicited source.
“If we had been able to connect, the outcome could have been different, but when we couldn’t, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Skeel said.
The need for money did not play into the decision, Skeel said. The foundation has a $10 million endowment, so the contribution was “nice, but not needed.”
“We should be vigilant about who we take money from, because we are an organization that supports journalism,” board member David Carlson said. “We would not want to take funds from somebody who doesn’t share our values.”
On Friday, the board told Skeel to shorten the eight-page policy to simply include what gifts SDX accepts and how. Skeel said the policy isn’t required by law, but could make the process clearer for potential contributors. For now, they’re content to handle the process on a case-by-case basis.
“If something odd comes across, we’ll ask about it,” Skeel said. “We are journalists. We want to see where it’s coming from.”