Usually, wherever two or three microphones are gathered, Franklin Graham seems to be there.
The voice of Graham — son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham — is missing, though, from an investigative report this week by the Charlotte Observer:
The North Carolina newspaper reports that it made repeated requests to interview Franklin Graham last week but that he was not available.
However, Graham's lack of availability did not prevent the newspaper in his home state from producing a solid, praiseworthy piece of journalism:
Six years ago, Franklin Graham decided to give up his pay as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“I feel that God has called me to this ministry and that calling was never based on compensation,” he wrote then in a memo to the BGEA staff.
But since 2011, at the urging of the Charlotte-based ministry’s board of directors, Graham has been receiving a salary again.
That’s in addition to the more than $620,000 he receives for his other full-time job, leading Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency based in Boone. His 2013 compensation from Samaritan’s Purse alone made him the highest-paid CEO of any international relief agency based in the U.S., according to data provided by GuideStar, the world’s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations.
Graham’s total compensation last year from the two charities was more than $880,000, including $258,667 from BGEA.
That total is less than the $1.2 million he received in 2008, but it’s still more than some nonprofit experts consider appropriate.
The Observer delves into the level of Graham's compensation — asking how much is too much for the head of two nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the newspaper quotes experts who question the practicality of a single person holding both full-time positions.
Led by veteran religion writer Tim Funk, the Observer team presents the facts, provides relevant context to help readers understand those facts and mostly allows Graham's PR gurus ample opportunity to respond.
This section of the 2,000-word report is typical:
Several nonprofit experts, though, said Graham should have stuck with his decision to forgo pay from BGEA.
“It gives the appearance that he went back on his word and can’t be trusted,” said Ken Berger, a nonprofit consultant and former CEO of Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits for donors. “It’s worrisome. It appears sneaky.”
Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership, agreed.
“It doesn’t matter that some board members wanted him to get money again,” Eisenberg said. “He’s a big boy. He could have said, ‘no.’ ”
(Graham spokesman Mark) DeMoss’ reply: “This organization has earned the trust and prayers of those who support it with their financial and prayer support for more than 60 years and continues to be as transparent as possible.”
I'm a journalist, so I'm biased, but here's my advice: If you really want to be "as transparent as possible," Graham should speak to reporters himself on a story such as this. Relying on a media relations person (even one as respected and competent as DeMoss) sure doesn't scream "transparency." Rather, it gives the strong impression — rightly or wrongly — of "something to hide."
Undoubtedly, most of us would consider our personal income a private matter. But in Graham's case, he's leading multimillion-dollar nonprofits that rely on private donors and substantial tax breaks, as the Observer points out. Thus, is there any doubt that Graham's compensation is fair game for journalistic treatment?
To its credit, the Observer presents a nuanced portrait of the ministries that Graham leads:
Samaritan’s Purse is often the first agency at the scene of natural disasters around the world. And it’s demonstrated a deep commitment to serving the people of Haiti and, especially during last year’s Ebola scourge, those in Liberia.
As the face and voice of the BGEA, the ministry started by his father decades ago, Franklin Graham also heads up crusade-like Christian festivals around the country and the globe. In June, he led a festival in Ukraine. Coming up: festivals in Birmingham, Ala. (Aug. 14-16); Oklahoma City (Aug. 22-23); Fortaleza, Brazil (Oct. 23-24); and Tokyo (Nov. 20-22).
“I don’t know where he finds the energy,” said Ken Barun, Graham’s chief of staff at BGEA. “I’ve worked for some of the biggest companies in the world (including McDonald’s) and I have never seen this.”
If I have a criticism of the piece, it's the laundry list near the end where the Observer describes Graham as a "polarizing figure" in the U.S. The newspaper provides a quick list of hot-button issues but fails to offer adequate background or opportunity for Graham's supporters to defend him.
But overall, this is a model of fair, hard-hitting reporting that stops way short of "gotcha" journalism.