Hey journalists, we need to talk about your problematic portrayals of nonprofits

[Image description: A black and white cat in front of an iPad (or some type of pad), their mouth open in a shocked expression. This cat probably works in nonprofit and just read an irritating article casting nonprofits in bad light. Image by Kanashi on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, Juneteenth was this week, so a quick reminder to funders that Black-led organizations only get only a tiny fraction of all foundation dollars, so if you released a statement and then took the day off, give more money to Black-led organizations and Black leaders. Everyone else, support Black businesses, donate to Black orgs, and fight against racism, such as the fascists making the teaching of Black history illegal.

Today’s topic is the portrayal of nonprofits by the media, mainly by journalists covering nonprofits. A colleague wrote me, irritated by yet another article that portrays nonprofits in poor light. “There’s so much handwringing about how nonprofits are never held accountable, without any actual understanding of nonprofit experiences. Why don’t [nonprofits] just collect data, Vu? How hard can it be to collect data???”

A while ago I was excited because the New York Times had a reporter who introduced himself as the main person who would be covering nonprofits. He went onto Twitter and crowdsourced for topic suggestions. People gave him lots of great suggestions: spotlight amazing nonprofits doing great things, highlight the inequity that nonprofits are addressing, bring attention to the lack of resources going to nonprofits and how we still manage to kick ass, feature amazing nonprofit leaders, maybe do a piece on nonprofit professionals’ amazing sense of style and fashion and our symbiotic relationship with Ross Dress for Less.

The dude came back later to announce that he would focus on uncovering nonprofit malfeasance and corruption. I guess every article would feature an Evil Nonprofit of the Week or something, I dunno.

Anyway, it’s getting very annoying. Our sector is the third largest sector. We are 10% of the workforce in the US. And yet we barely get much coverage in the media. The newspaper has sections on Art, Sports, Business, Entertainment, etc. I would love it if every newspaper had a “Nonprofit” or “Charity and Philanthropy” section. Instead, we are barely seen, and on the rare occasion we do appear, it’s usually because reporters are trying to expose some org for something the public would consider shameful.

It’s not to say that nonprofits are all awesome and should never be called out publicly when they do unethical or illegal things. There are organizations and foundations that suck and should absolutely be scrutinized. But the reporting on our sector has been unbalanced, with tons of omissions and generalizations. It’s been warping society’s perceptions of nonprofits, which only makes the work harder.

So let’s keep a few things in mind, all you journalists and other media folks out there:

Stop lumping all nonprofits together: So one nonprofit does something considered bad, that automatically means all nonprofits are awful? Do we do that to for-profits? If a restaurant makes some sort of mistake, like accidentally give people food poisoning, you journalists don’t generalize to the entire restaurant business and encourage the public to think that ALL restaurants have lax health standards. And when people read about it, they will probably try to avoid the restaurant, but they don’t think “See? All restaurants will give you salmonella!” Have the same courtesy for nonprofits.

Increase your awareness of nonprofits: For some reason, everyone seems to think they’re knowledgeable about nonprofits. It’s weird. We don’t do this for most other professions. No one suddenly thinks they understand legal complexities if they’re not a lawyer. I don’t go to realtors and start giving them advice on mortgage capital rates or whatever. But people who have never worked at nonprofits somehow think they can run one and can have equally valid opinions on our work. This appears to be the case with a lot of journalists. Whereas they might be humble and learn stuff about other fields, the general assumption that nonprofit work is simple and easy means there’s less thoughtfulness in covering nonprofits.

Put down the pitchforks: Like I said, there are nonprofits and foundations that suck, and they should be held accountable. But there seems to be something especially gleeful in people’s attempts to “take down” nonprofits; a type of schadenfreude. It’s as if nonprofits and nonprofit people think they’re too high and mighty, and it’s good whenever they’re brought down a notch. Have you met any nonprofit people?! Look at them, with their greying hair, involuntary twitch in one eye, and a Ross Dress for Less shirt that’s stained with community hummus and despair! And yet they manage to help countless people every day. There’s nothing to bring down! Help lift them up!

Be thoughtful when simplifying complex issues: Nonprofit work often involves complex social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental issues. Do not think you can understand things like homelessness or youth incarceration with a couple of interviews and a few background articles. Heck, some of us in this field for decades are still trying to figure it all out. Your inclination to simplify things into shorter news segments and articles will lead to shallow understanding and perceptions among the public, which only helps worsen the problems. Keep that in mind as you cover nonprofit work.

Resist easy data and metrics: Because of the complexity of the work, and because this complexity is often boring to untangle and won’t generate a lot of clicks or whatever, many of you are tempted to report outcomes that are easy to understand and easy to measure. For a long time, for example, and even now, a lot of you have been obsessed with nonprofit overhead, and have been riling up the public to hate nonprofits who have high overhead ratio or other similar financial indicators, which is often not helpful at all. Someone told me that her local newspaper annually publishes a list of the ten orgs with the highest overhead rate in the city. That list and similar stuff are gross and damaging. Don’t do that.

Understand that marginalized-communities-led nonprofits face different challenges: Nonprofits led by communities of color, LGBTQIA+, disabled people, rural communities, and other marginalized communities face significantly more challenges. It’s harder for them to attract attention and get resources, for example. You often only focus on “bringing down” larger nonprofits without thinking of how this affects smaller, grassroots, marginalized-communities-led orgs. When public perceptions of nonprofits turn negative, it’s these nonprofits that are most hurt.

Work with nonprofits as allies: Considering how vital journalism is to society, and yet how poorly resourced most media organizations are, and how many journalists are also underpaid and shop at Ross Dress for Less, you should already know what it must feel like to be in nonprofit. We should be allies and work together to push for more funding for both nonprofit AND journalism, which are the forces barely holding society together right now. Funders should significantly increase their support for both. Let’s be friends and lift one another up, OK?

All right, that’s all for now. Next week will be the last post before I take the entire month of July off to take my kids to visit our relatives in Vietnam, whom we haven’t seen in five years. I hope you are also finding time to rest and recharge.

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