A dozen story suggestions from editors, reporters and nonprofit leaders:

  • Nonproflts that deliver. Gather information on all major nonprofits serving your area, and compare the amount of resources they devote to solving problems, paying salaries, covering administrative costs and raising money.
  • Resources versus needs. Compare the scope of a local problem with the resources of charities devoted to solving it. Check into the origins of those resources. What share comes from the government? What share from private donors? Can projected resources keep up with projected need for services?
  • Role models. Consider an important community problem and find a nonprofit, in your area or elsewhere, that has solved it well. What lessons has it learned? Can its experience be transferred elsewhere?
  • Top earners. Download from the IRS a list of all nonprofits in your area. Select the top 50 or 100 by size or impact. Obtain their Form 990s. Compare the salaries of their officers, from the nonprofit and from affiliated for-profit groups.
  • Big-time nonprofits. Study in-depth the biggest nonprofits in your area. They’ll probably be hospitals and universities. Using Form 990s, hospital medicare data or Department of Education IPEDS data, discuss service, pay for all levels of workers, benefits to community or lack thereof.
  • Competitive nonprofits. Describe the activities of nonprofits that look and act just like ordinary businesses. Some will be competing with for-profit businesses. What added social value do they bring to the table, to justify their tax exemptions?
  • Tax forgiveness. If your state and local governments exempt nonprofits from property or sales taxes (and most do), what does that cost? What does society get back in return? How vigilant are local authorities in checking on the organizations? Do they visit "places of worship" to see whether they’re legitimate?
  • Volunteers. Find the most interesting volunteers in your area, and write about an important issue through their eyes.
  • Politics. Which nonprofits (churches included) are most politically active in your area? Get to know them, attend their meetings, find out what they’re up to, how they’re thinking and working, and how they regard the federal laws against excessive political involvement.
  • Fundraising perils. Some nonprofits have been forced to use shady for-profit fundraisers. Some of these companies hand over only a dime for every dollar they raise. Unwary nonprofits can get fleeced. And donors need to know where they’ll get the biggest bang for their bucks.
  • Future conversions. Nonprofits are ripe for conversion to for-profit status if they contain plentiful assets. That makes hospitals prime candidates. But universities may not be immune to the trend.
  • Creative bookkeeping. Charities get public relations points for "education" but lose them for "fundraising expenses." So how do they record fundraising letters that contain educational tips? Just one of many accountability questions.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment