DennisBeaverSeptember 23, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Let’s say you’ve been a regular contributor to a charitable organization, possibly a church or some recognized non-profit as you believe in their objectives. Then, suddenly, that organization does something that you completely disagree with. Can you legally obtain a refund of your most recent contribution?

That was the question that a Hanford reader asked in a very upset tone of voice a little past 9 in the morning, one recent Thursday. Her name is Cindy, and her phone call sounded like this:

Pardon my calling you at home, but I read your column every Sunday in the Hanford Sentinel and know that you have had a great deal of on air media experience. Would you tune your radio to KVPR now? I have been a regular supporter of KVPR for years, as it is a Public Radio Station and depends on financial assistance from listeners. They have excellent programming with, announcers and other on-air people who have good technical skills and who understand that listeners expect to hear the English language used correctly. But there is some clown on the air right now who I can’t understand, and frankly, it makes me wonder what the station’s management was thinking in allowing someone with such poor skills to step into a recording booth! Listen and I’ll wait.

I did as requested and at first thought that I was hearing a comedy skit, or a parody of a radio interview. Like my reader, I, too, listen to Fresno-based KVPR, Public Radio, and believe they do a fine job, putting good voices and competent journalists on the air.

After having spent approximately 20 years on air in radio and television as a legal affairs reporter, I know what sounds professional. From a technical point of view, this was completely unacceptable radio in my opinion.

The topic was interesting – California Agriculture – but the reporter’s delivery was so marred by heavily accented, poorly articulated, incorrectly stressed English, that it became a cross between irritating and comical.

As the KVPR Web site archives programs, later that day I played this one for clients – and you should have seen the looks on their faces. Curious as to the station’s comments, I phoned and discovered; (1) he has been on the air for several weeks, (2) and there have been complaints about his delivery, some from their very own staff!

Can we get a refund of our donation?

“My husband and I have supported Valley Public Radio for years, and friends have heard the station thank us on air for our donations. But I do not want to have anything to do – or to be associated in any way – with a radio station that willfully allows butchering of the English language. This has nothing to do with nationality, the race or color of the announcer, but it has everything to do with having respect for language and your listeners. Today, every major network has on-air journalists from all over the world and yet they have good spoken language skills. They speak standard American or British English, but this stuff at KVPR is insulting to anyone who respects language. Am I within my rights in asking for a refund of our last contribution and telling them to stop using our names as donors?” Cindy asked me in all seriousness.

These questions do come up from time to time, especially when a church or other charitable, non-profit organization changes its focus or engages in activities that are different from what led supporters to contribute in the first place. It is only natural to withhold further donations, and if the changes in direction are sufficiently dramatic, asking for a refund might be appropriate. However, obtaining that refund is another matter and can be a real challenge, as basic issues of the law of both gift and contract become involved.

A legal analysis

“One of the problems that management of any non-profit faces is the nature of the gift in the first place. If it was for a particular project or program that was canceled, then it is not only reasonable but expected to at least contact the donor and ask if they would like the money returned, or if it can be used for a related purpose,” Bakersfield Attorney Jennifer Adams told me when I ran the facts of this situation by her and played a portion of the interview. She specializes in non-profits and foundations.

“Charities and all non profits are required to hold contributions in trust. It’s important to understand that once a gift has been made, one that is not conditional for a certain project, there is no right to a refund. As long as the charity or organization remains in the realm of its stated purposes, merely because a donor does not like what the charity is doing there is no legal basis to get your money or property returned.”

“I am sympathetic with your reader, and also find this reporter’s style objectionable, but the better approach might simply be to pick up the phone and call the station immediately, and tell them how she feels. It is certainly appropriate and will shine a light on the problem. She should talk with someone in management at the station, just to be sure the message reaches the right people,” Attorney Adams recommends.

It will be interesting to see just how KVPR will handle this situation, or if they even understand the significance of a handful of calls.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.