Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

What’s the real story?

with 9 comments

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?

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Written by eclawson

August 25, 2009 at 12:15 PM

9 Responses

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  1. First time I’ve seen your blog. Surely you are correct, but then the quality erosion within the mainstream news media takes all sectors prisoner.

    See you again.

    Lou Cartier

    August 27, 2009 at 12:40 PM

    • Lou- I agree. If I were in any other sector, I’d probably write about that one. At the moment, it’s all I can do to focus on nonprofits. Good reminder to focus on the quality news coverage as well.

      eclawson

      August 28, 2009 at 12:25 PM

  2. I think that you’re right — the story is not so much that the non profit is suffering, but what that suffering means for the community it serves. Non profits should not exist to only exist… they should exist to serve a constituency and hopefully work toward the end of their needing even to be around. Sort of the give a man a fish vs teach him to fish way of thinking.

    Having been a reporter, I know that the tendency is to have only two players — good non profit, bad economy — so the reporting is not surprising. However, we who work for non profits — i work at NeighborWorks America — need to lead with what is at stake for people, not the organization when approaching journalists. If we do that more, then the stories will reflect the real issue — people are hurting, non profits hurting is just a symptom.

    Douglas

    August 27, 2009 at 1:11 PM

    • Thanks Douglas- you have an interesting perspective from both sides of the interview, as it were. I would contend that nonprofits don’t exist just to exist–I believe all (or the vast majority) of them do exist to serve. But that gets lost in stories like the ones I described. You’re right- “symptom” is the perfect word for this kind of story.

      eclawson

      August 28, 2009 at 12:28 PM

  3. Of course the theme of nonprofits suffering is only half the story. It’s your job as a media professional to point that out to journalists when they call. Don’t “mentally rail” against the question from journalists about how the economy is affecting your org. Answer it by pointing out exactly what you just did “…let me tell you how it’s affecting us, tomorrow, 800 seniors will not get their Meals on Wheels…”
    It’s a media professional’s job to know exactly how to answer those questions. Provide the emotional meat and potatoes of the stew that journalists are trying to cook. Have facts handy or promise to get the facts and then do it quickly.
    Every call from a journalist is a sales call for you. Don’t gripe about it. Use it.

    Christopher

    August 28, 2009 at 7:55 AM

    • Christopher- you hit the nail on the head. I pointed out a problem without offering a solution. You’re right: nonprofit folks should take responsibility for steering a question that doesn’t get at the full story…once we’re aware of it, that is. Thanks for keeping me accountable and improving the discussion.

      eclawson

      August 28, 2009 at 12:33 PM

  4. I could not agree more! It is amazing to see how many smart, news-reading people do not understand the basics of what an endowment is, where non-profits get revenue, ethical standards in the sector, and what is required of non-profits in order to deserve tax-exempt status. I even encounter the perception that all non-profits are entirely volunteer-run.

    It isn’t the job of the press alone to educate the public, but the cursory coverage in most papers isn’t helping. People shouldn’t need to read the Chronicle of Philanthropy in order to understand this major force in our culture.

    I look forward to seeing how this blog develops!

    Colleen

    August 28, 2009 at 1:56 PM

    • Thanks Colleen. It might be a tall order to expect mainstream news audiences to follow some aspects of nonprofit insider baseball–after all, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about corporate insider baseball–but I agree that some of the inaccurate perceptions ought to be addressed.

      I’m interested to see how this blog develops too! 😉

      eclawson

      August 28, 2009 at 2:28 PM

  5. Great job in reminding the sector of a few important points: 1) It’s about you (the beneficiary or the supporter), not about me (the org’n); 2) it’s the story that matters – it’s what we, as human beings, connect to… it’s easier to remember a story than facts and statistics; 3) marketing, fundraising, call it what you like… is about making someone feel the pain, then offering the thing that will take the pain away (the need, and the nonprofit’s ability to meet that need).

    Ellia

    September 1, 2009 at 5:35 PM


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