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Making a Retreat From the Philanthropy Beat

Guest Post, Mitch Hurst

In a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Pablo Eisenberg lamented the decision by The New York Times to eliminate its philanthropy/nonprofit beat:

What is surprising about this turn of events is that it comes at a time when nonprofits have been heralded as an increasingly important force that can offset the negative impact of dwindling government funds, both federal and state. The number of nonprofit organizations has grown enormously in the past two decades, as has the number of foundations, which now tops 76,000. With its workers representing 11 percent of the work force and 5.4 percent of the economy, it seems like nonprofits warrant additional journalistic attention, not less.

Eisenberg’s exception is rooted in the idea that influential traditional media still have a prominent role in holding the nonprofit sector accountable — especially as watchdogs that sniff out abuse. And on that point he’s less than charitable to the sector, noting: “The number of financial abuses and other illegal activities at nonprofits appears to be growing more prevalent and more brazen. Inappropriate expenditures, self-dealing, fraud, conflicts of interest, excessive compensation, and other practices that violate the law have become all too common.”

I don’t want to debate Eisenberg about which should take prominence in how nonprofits are covered — the good most do or the misdeeds that ensnare others. It’s a simple fact that the sector has never gotten its due when it comes to recognition of its sheer size and contribution to society and the economy. And maybe it never will. To me, though, it’s not a matter of whether nonprofits are covered as a beat, but rather whether they are covered for the different ways they are working to improve people’s lives and build a better, more equitable world.

Having spent a small chunk of my career in a job that included media outreach duties on behalf of philanthropy, it seems to me there’s more value in pushing coverage of nonprofits through other beats, making even more reporters and editors aware of the significant role nonprofits play in the issues that affect their reading public. That said, the media is often skeptical of those who seem to be seeking coverage more for raising funds than seeking to advance a cause. We certainly saw that suggested as motive behind the Invisible Children’s campaign via the viral Kony video.

I also don’t want to debate the merits of the Kony campaign. However, I will say that nonprofits are connected by their charitable missions and the mutual challenge of raising funds to achieve those missions. But this matters less to the outside world than it does to those inside the circle.If only I had a buck for every time I’ve heard some version of the phrase, “we need to communicate about the collective impact of the nonprofit sector.” It is important to communicate the value that tax-exempt status provides, particularly as it relates to legislative affairs. But the best way to communicate “value” is for individual nonprofits to share their stories in a way that the news media and their audiences want to experience them.

Killing the nonprofit beat at The New York Times may be a sign that the sector is losing respect and influence. It’s more likely a recognition that distinctions between sectors matter a lot less than they used to.

Communications Network board member Mitch Hurst is founder of MH Group.


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