Children’s Charity Is Beset by Tumult and Family Feuding
By Grant Williams
THIRTY YEARS AGO, Larry Jones founded Feed the Children as a tiny charity in a small Oklahoma City office where he ran what he
called the Larry Jones International
After building Feed the Children into
one of the five most-successful fund-raising charities in the nation—and after years of controversy—Mr. Jones was
fired as president last month by his organization’s board of directors.
Feed the Children—which provides
food, clothing, medicine, books, and
other supplies to needy children and
families in the United States and overseas—raised more than $1-billion last
year in donated goods and cash, according to its financial statements.
Now, as Mr. Jones takes his battle for
his job to court, the high-profile group
faces serious questions about its future.
If Mr. Jones does wind up permanently leaving Feed the Children, he says
he would not now “rule in or out” later
starting a new, competing charity. “All I
can say today is that I’m living a day at
a time—an hour at a time,” he says.
STEVE GOOCH/THE OKLAHOMAN
Larry Jones, Feed the Children’s ousted president, is in a battle
to get his job back: “You work 30 years and all of a sudden
someone starts dismantling things in front of your eyes.”
A Year of Turmoil
The firing of Mr. Jones capped a year
of bizarre events at Feed the Children,
in which Mr. Jones tried to oust several
board members; saw the trustees temporarily restored to office by a court;
and then agreed to give up management powers and serve as a fund raiser
Adding to the drama: Just before he
was let go, Mr. Jones acknowledged
that he had sought to record his conversations with top charity executives
last spring. He also went to court to
stop board members from using charity
money to pay legal fees incurred over
the past year.
Mr. Jones’s wife, Frances Jones, who
co-founded the organization, remains
with the charity as its executive vice
president and secretary.
The Joneses’ daughter, Larri Sue
Jones, remains at the charity as well
as its vice president and general counsel, pitted against her father. She was
fired a year ago, with her father’s acquiescence, and then later returned to
What’s more, a lawsuit is pending in
which two former accountants at the organization say they were fired for pointing out that the charity owes $1.1-mil-
lion in back taxes to the state of Oklahoma.
“Scandal after scandal has rocked
Feed the Children under Jones’s leadership, but revelation of these problems is
likely not well known outside of the city
in which the charity is based,” wrote
The Oklahoman newspaper in an editorial last month that was titled “Feed
the Ego: Charity’s Founder Refuses to
However, in an interview, Mr. Jones
says that he has always acted in good
faith and has tried to work out solutions
with the charity’s board. “Right now,
there is so much confusion that it’s just
very sad,” he says.
Mr. Jones says that his daughter has
been a key figure in stirring turmoil at
Feed the Children. “She was heir apparent, but she wanted it ‘now,’” says
Mr. Jones. “She’s convinced the board
she can do a better job than her mother
and father can.”
He adds: “You work 30 years and all
of a sudden someone starts dismantling
things in front of your eyes, and it’s your
own daughter. It’s very difficult.”
Tony Sellars, director of communications at Feed the Children, said Larri
Sue Jones and other representatives of
the organization declined to comment
for this article.
son for his firing was that he had been
too outspoken about an investigation
into allegations of sexual harassment.
He said the real reason was that he did
not get along with his board.
To be sure, the saga unfolding at Feed
the Children raises questions similar to
ones that have arisen at other organizations in which the relationship between
founders and their boards and supporters has grown contentious over time—
so-called founder’s syndrome.
Many such groups start small, grow
large, make efforts to be more professional in their management and operations, and end up alienating their
founder who wants to keep control and
is used to running the organization a
Members of the current board of Feed
the Children have said Mr. Jones tried
to remove them last December just before they were to meet to discuss placing him on sabbatical, in part, because
of his “freewheeling dominance,” according to court documents.
Mr. Jones said at the time that he
acted against some board members in
part because he was concerned they had
done nothing to rectify problems found
by the charity’s outside auditors.
A somewhat similar tug-of-war played
out five years ago when Habitat for Humanity, another of the nation’s biggest
charities, fired its founder and president, Millard Fuller.
Habitat remains strong despite the
contentious departure of Mr. Fuller,
who died in February. The official rea-
Giving Up Celebrity
The history of controversy at Feed the
Children, combined with the fact that
Mr. Jones had also been the charity’s
top fund raiser, heightens the sense of
peril at that organization.
Stephen R. Block, research professor in the school of public affairs at the
University of Colorado at Denver, says
the stakes are high for Mr. Jones and
“When you have your organization
listed in the top 10 of the largest non-profits and have an international presence, that puts a person in a position of
celebrity,” says Mr. Block, who wrote a
book, Why Nonprofits Fail: Overcoming
Founder’s Syndrome, Fundphobia, and
Other Obstacles to Success.
When it’s time to retire from an active management role, “you don’t want
to go out as a celebrity with bad headlines, you want to turn over the reins as
a hero,” says Mr. Block, who also is executive director of Denver Options, an
organization that coordinates services
for people with developmental disabilities.
“But as the person who spent 30
years building an organization, if you
are engaged in founder’s syndrome, you
don’t go easily. You want to remain in
power; you want to be able to still call
the shots,” he says.
Mr. Jones dismisses the notion that
he has been reluctant to let go. He says
he had long worked to build a staff that
was attuned to an eventual future without him and had been planning to retool
fund raising to depend less on informa-tional-style television programs that he
hosts and more on online appeals.
“We were already planning for what
I would call the next wave,” he says. “I
knew how to make that transition.”
Difficult Fund Raising
Feed the Children’s most immediate problem may be that the group is
in the crucial holiday fund-raising
season without Mr. Jones, its famous-name supporter, who demanded that
his name, likeness, and voice no longer be used by the organization in any
way, including in fund-raising letters,
in television appeals, and on the group’s
“You have to anticipate that it’s going to hurt the fund-raising activity”
of Feed the Children, says Mark Hammons, a lawyer for Mr. Jones. “Larry
Jones has been the face of Feed the
Children for many, many years,” says
Mr. Jones says that the charity has
lost two cash gifts—one of $3-million
and one of $500,000—because of his
departure. “The people said, If you are
not there, we’re not going to give them,”
However, The Oklahoman newspaper editorial said the charity can and
should move on without Mr. Jones. “The
tragedy is that this man simply can’t
conceive of the organization continuing
without him,” it wrote.
Meanwhile, Feed the Children faces
questions from watchdog groups about
whether it has inflated its fund-raising
success by exaggerating the value of donated food and other items.
Minutes from an April 2008 board
meeting show that “significant discussion” was held about a problem—called
a material weakness—in the organization’s “Gift-in-Kind (GIK) Valuation
Methodology” that was described in its
auditor’s “management letter.”
In a new review of Feed the Children,
the BBB Wise Giving Alliance said the
board discussion raised concerns. “If the
organization overvalued these [GIK] donations, it could affect the amount FTC
spends on fund raising and/or other
programs,” the BBB said.
Feed the Children did not explain the
matter to the BBB’s satisfaction, the alliance said, leading the BBB to conclude
that the charity may not meet some of
The BBB decided that Feed the Children failed to meet its standard on governance and oversight in part because
it said board members were not given
sufficient notice before a meeting a year
ago at which several were removed.
In the end, Mr. Jones says he hopes
board members will resolve their differences with him outside of court.
“There’s not any charity that from time
to time doesn’t have trouble,” he says.
“I’m saying, Let’s work it out.”