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How to hijack a sector

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How to hijack a sector
I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.
Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.
When journalists throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:
1) Some nonprofits provide health care.
2) Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
3)  Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.
While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.
Consider an opposing WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:
1) Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
2) The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
3) Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)
A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:
“Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
“All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
“The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”
If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. The term “nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do. It’s sterile and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.
However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:
“A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”
And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”
“Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as “a charitable and benevolent institution” whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”
These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.
More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.
The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.

Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.

When news stories throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:

  1. Some nonprofits provide health care.
  2. Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
  3. Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.

While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.

Consider another WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:

  1. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
  2. The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
  3. Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)

A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:

  • “Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
  • “All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
  • “The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”

If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. “Nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do–indeed, almost the polar opposite of it. It’s sterile, and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.

However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:

  • “A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”

And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”

  • “Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as ‘a charitable and benevolent institution’ whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”

These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.

More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.

The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

Written by eclawson

October 22, 2009 at 8:26 PM