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

Written by Vu Le

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.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.