Congratulations to North Carolina State University, Institute for Non Profits headed by Dr. Mary Tschirhart for her foresight and vision in attracting the Philanthropy Journal and its editor Todd Cohen. I believe no other academic philanthropy center in the world has a daily virtual “newspaper”. This is a distinction that if directed correctly could be one of the most important strategies to improve philanthropy in the country. I am a respectful critic of nonprofit journalism as it stands today. The mistakes in reporting, the lack of understanding by most reporters of the subject and the naïve way in which the media tease about nonprofits and then pounce with little or no understanding.Don’t get me wrong. I am a believer of the role that the media has as a watchdog. I tell clients all the time that most nonprofits want to have a high profile, but with high profile comes responsibility. Ask the Red Cross, ask the Catholic Church, well you get it. But the media has a right to do a better job and they need to be better prepared.Nonprofits are the new world for lots of things. The entrepreneurial spirit that is going on is incredible. The nonprofit world should go under the watchful eye of our society. We influence so much now. But the reporting needs to get it right.Let me share three nonprofit stories that almost make you laugh if it wasn’t so sad.SMALL TOWN SCANDALI live outside of Wilmington, NC (great place to live). Recently the local Museum asked for $100,000 from the city. In the past four years, the city had given the $100,000 each year. Now, however, the local paper decides to do a story on why the Museum needs the funds. By the way the funds were to be used for their Endowment Campaign, but for ongoing operations. Forget the media, someone doesn’t know what the word endowment means. But back to my story. A report fresh from an exciting expose on the local state liquor commission misconduct, asked the Chair of the Museum Board for a list of salaries of the employees. The Chair not only wouldn’t give it to the report, but publicly disagreed with the reporter’s work on the earlier case. Two wrongs never make a right. Then the Executive Director refused to give the salaries and went on to say she disagreed with the newspaper’s role in watch dogging government. Did you hear Thomas Jefferson just roll over in his grave?Well, what went wrong here? Did the reporter not know that a nonprofit has to file a 990 tax form that is available on line? Did the Chair and the Executive Director know they have a responsibility to give the 990 out as a public record? This episode lead to a couple of stories, a couple of blogs, a press conference in which the Museum gave a range of salaries with the ED making $120,000 a year–$2 million budget. Certainly, I don’t think that salary is out of line. What should have happened easily and straightforward became an issue. Don’t know whether the Museum got its money, but it sure got the attention of the community and not in the correct way.KANSAS CITYThe Kansas City University for Medicine and Biosciences terminated its President and CEO for cause in December and appointed a Board Committee to study what went on. There are so many journalistic stories in this one, law suits are swirling, and none of us have the patience to go through them all. But what about philanthropy journalism? The big focus is that they are going through an IRS audit in which the IRS is claiming that the President’s salary is out of line—she makes $1.3 million a year—probably is out of line. The local newspaper does what it should—a big expose’ on all of this. Believe me the characters in this drama wrote the articles themselves—it was punishing on all sides. But the surprise to me is why it took the KC Star all this time to discover this abnormality at the University? The Chronicle of Philanthropy and Chronicle of Higher Education had done a report on out of line salaries two years before and drew attention to this issue—in 2007. They were scooped three years before and didn’t even know it.NEW YORK TIMESFinally even the revered New York Times can be sucked into poor philanthropy journalism. A good friend of mine was featured in a story on fundraising research in a special magazine issue on philanthropy. Two economists, who according to their bios, had done little or no work in the nonprofit world. My friend, Jen Shang, the first PhD graduate of the prestigious Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and married to Adrian Sargeant, the Hartsook Chair in Fundraising, dissertation was used concerning donor loyalty and levels of giving. These two economist asserted that the way to raise money was to offer a challenge of no more than $600. The lack of editing and knowledge of what Jen was trying to say was totally lost on these guys, yet they now have a New York Times credential.Well, the challenge is now to Todd and Mary to develop a plan to attack this problem. North Carolina State and the Institute can be the center of nonprofit journalistic thought in America and the world. Go get it guys.
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