Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

Archive for August 2009

State edition: Oregon

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The beautiful state of Oregon is on my mind. I just spent two days tooling around Portland with a good friend, helping her find an apartment before her graduate school term starts next month. So as a nod to Portland and its cheerful, bookish downtown, here’s the Oregon edition of Nonprofit Periscope.

An article from yesterday’s East Oregonian highlights many qualities of nonprofit work that make the sector meaningful to readers. Here are a few.

Personal: The article opens with a glimpse into the life of a person whose life is enriched by a nonprofit. This is a real person, with a name, a life story, and even a picture. In addition, staff and board members of the nonprofit are named, showing that the organization (what a detached word) is made up of human beings.

Solvent: The nonprofit involved, a subsidized senior housing facility in Pendleton, is described as financially stable, having paid off the facility’s mortgage.

Vital: The nonprofit is depicted as meeting concrete, identifiable needs of specific individuals. As one resident of the facility puts it, “If I didn’t have a facility like this I couldn’t afford it. I’d be a street person.”

Connected: According to the article, five churches collaborated to create the nonprofit. It didn’t just spring forth from a vacant lot. It’s a product of the community’s history.

Granted, there are probably other stories to be told about this nonprofit. There may be residents in the facility who aren’t happy with it. Maybe some Pendleton neighbors object to its zoning, or think it should create more jobs. The story can be constructive without being flattering. But this particular article does an excellent job of making the nonprofit relatable to readers, helping them understand one way nonprofits fit into their lives. This kind of article can go a long way toward enriching readers’ understanding of what nonprofits are, what they do, and what they mean in their communities.

What else would help accomplish this? Add your thoughts in the comments section.

Written by eclawson

August 28, 2009 at 3:24 PM

What’s the real story?

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This article from the Austin American-Statesman is a typical example of a recession-era theme in media coverage of nonprofits. Its headline, “Central Texas nonprofits hurting, holding on,” gets the point across. Nonprofits in central Texas are suffering the effects of the economic downturn, and somehow keeping their doors open. And they’re not alone—try a Google News search for the keywords economy hurting nonprofit, and the results number in the thousands.

But all articles about nonprofit suffering are not the same. Some, such as the one in the Austin American-Statesman, describe the suffering and valiant tenacity and stop there. That’s the story: nonprofits as victims, economy as villain, heroic struggle.

I’m not sure how the average news reader is supposed to interpret that story. Nonprofits are suffering. So? Why should we care?

The stories that stop at nonprofit suffering fail to include a critical step: these organizations provide services that affect our lives. The verbs often used to describe the recession’s impact on nonprofits—suffering, hurting, etc.—obscure what’s really going on. That is, they’re perfectly accurate…but they describe the wrong subject. When nonprofits lack the resources they need, they are less able to provide the services that people, animals, and even the environment rely on to survive. The real story isn’t about an anthropomorphized organization, whimpering in the dark in pain. It’s about a social safety net stretched so thin that the beings it once held up now fall through.

A better example of telling this story can be found in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The headline plays the theme of the earlier example: “Pa. budget impasse hurts social agencies.” Again, the victims are the social agencies, rather than those they serve. However, the body of the article makes the wounded agencies’ impact visible—for example, home-delivered meals for the elderly. And it makes that impact measurable—108,000 home-delivered meals to 665 seniors in three counties.

Reading that, one gets a glimpse of what happens when agencies such as these that contract with the state government do not get the funding they need. Fewer seniors get their meals delivered. Perhaps someone has to decide which senior citizens get removed from the delivery schedule. And then someone’s grandfather has to figure out how to get dinner when he can’t drive or walk to the grocery store. He can order in tonight—pizza places deliver, after all—but because of his carefully-managed Social Security income, that’s not an option every night.

Handling media relations in my most recent job at a national nonprofit, the most frequent question I got from journalists was “How is the economy affecting nonprofits?” And every time I heard it, I mentally railed against the question, because it missed the point. What we should be asking is not now the economy is affecting nonprofits, but how its effects on nonprofits are hurting the living things dependent on nonprofits.

What do you think? Is nonprofit suffering a story in itself? Am I missing the “real” real story?

Written by eclawson

August 25, 2009 at 12:15 PM

Up Periscope

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Flickr: Josh Bancroft

Flickr: Josh Bancroft

Greetings, nonprofitlings! Welcome to my blog about media coverage of the nonprofit sector. This is the place for…

-commentary on specific news stories relevant to nonprofits;
-tips on media relations for nonprofity folks like yourselves;
-and interviews with journalists who cover nonprofit beats (or something close to that).

Before we go full up-periscope, here are some bastions of journalism I’ll be scanning for said coverage of nonprofits. If you don’t read them already, take this as my endorsement and give them a try.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy 

Philanthropy Journal 

The NonProfit Times 

The Nonprofit Quarterly

The Business of Giving

Thanks for reading…don’t be a stranger now.

Written by eclawson

August 21, 2009 at 1:01 AM

Posted in Uncategorized