Nonprofit Periscope

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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling

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