The local head of a nationally recognized charity earns nearly $200,000 a year, travels the globe at the nonprofit’s expense and receives a new car of the model of his choice every other year from his board of directors. A review of the organization’s books by accountants and attorneys who specialize in nonprofits shows that little, possibly none, of the public’s donations are going to poor clients, while the executive director’s entire salary is improperly reported as programming.
The newspaper buries the story deep inside and refuses to print the executive director’s name. One editor tells the reporter the story is a "cheap shot" against a do-gooder organization.
The incident points up something George Rodrigue underplays in his otherwise fine piece—a soft underbelly of journalistic ethics, our relationships with nonprofits.
Every time I get a United Way solicitation with my paycheck, every time my employer holds a newsroom auction for an abused children’s home or helps sponsor a 10K marathon for a heart disease prevention organization, I cringe. I contribute sometimes, uncomfortably. The suspicious side of me wants to order up a batch of 990 tax forms and get over to the nonprofit’s offices and take a good, hard look at the ratio of program to administrative expenses.
Call me old-fashioned, call me jaded, call me what you will. I am a former employee of a struggling nonprofit that truly did good work and was forced to lop off a piece of our precious grant money every year to pay for our national executive director’s six-figure salary. I am also a hardened newspaper reporter. From both perspectives, I think the old adage about separation of church and state was possibly never better applied than to newspapers and nonprofits.
Covering powerful institutions,from the CIA to major banks to key government figures, is tricky. But covering nonprofits may be trickiest of all. Journalists share a common mission with many of the best frontline charity workers: corny as it sounds, we want to save the world, and so do they. Publishers and editors want to be good corporate citizens and players in the communities they serve—it helps win readers, and it’s the right thing to do.
But there can be a real downside.
At a large, well-respected paper a few years back, the publisher decided to start a civic journalism program that linked a special team of reporters with community charities to foster solutions to some of the area’s most egregious problems. Within months, the paper had to do front page coverage about how the celebrity head of one of the charities had absconded with funds. The editors did the right thing, they ran the stories. What was embarrassing was that the paper had to describe its partnership with the organization.
The good news is that many reporters and editors rise to the challenge of covering "do-gooders," which can be wrenching in a way other stories never will be.
When I told a kindly elderly woman last spring that the clothes she had just donated to Goodwill would probably end up being sold in impoverished Third World countries for exorbitant profits, she thought for a moment, then said sadly, "I’11never trust anyone in the world again."
It made me momentarily question not just the story, but my life’s work. The questioning is good.
Detroit Free Press reporter Dennis Niemiec did a series in 1991 on how little money raised by Michigan nonprofits was actually going to charitable work.
"They ought to outlaw that phrase ‘Al proceeds go to charity,’" he said recently. "What’s left after the professional fund-raiser and the caterer and the band leader and the public relations firm are paid is what goes to charity."
After Niemiec’s series ran, the heads of major banks, utilities, sport franchises and other prominent businessmen—all board members of the charities he had examined—began a drum-roll of phone calls and letter-writing to the paper’s publisher and top editors. Eventually a meeting was held.
"There were people in that room who had never set foot in a newspaper before, all the bigwigs," recalled Niemiec. "One man cried, he actually wept as he tried to explain how the stories were going to hurt their fundraising efforts. He just didn’t get it."
Niemiec heard about the meeting afterwards; he was not invited. His assigning editor told him it would be better if he wasn’t. In the end, he thinks she made the right choice. She took any perceived heat, not him.
"I never felt any recriminations,"said Niemiec, who later did critical reports on area United Way activities, even though The Free Press publisher sat on the United Way board. He thinks every business section should have someone devoted to covering nonprofits.
As long as we walk the line properly between our desire to do good and our first responsibilities as journalists, more comprehensive coverage of nonprofits could and should be part of every newspaper. It is a burgeoning sector, as Rodrigue points out so well, and there are great stories to be told.
A few additional suggestions on covering nonprofits. The hardest of all may be churches, who under federal and many state laws are not required to report much more than their incorporating name. The Salvation Army,which does fine work in many places, sometimes hides under this shield. So do one-man boiler room operations.
For any nonprofit, if you can’t find anything out from the IRS or your state Registrar of Charitable Trusts, try a neighboring state. California laws regarding churches are notoriously weak, but Oregon brings vigorous lawsuits, often against the same businesses that go untouched in the Golden State. Also, a specific nonprofit can be good and bad. National offices may be top heavy with administrative staff, while local chapters or branches who actually do the work struggle financially and could use the boost afforded by a thoughtful, fun feature.
In a given region, there is a hierarchy. Brand name charities may receive the lion’s share of funds and recognition for a given type of service, while offering the least return or the most conservative approach to solving a societal ill. Search out alternative, legitimate organizations for their stories, too.
Janet Wilson, a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times, covers social trends, including welfare reform and issues affecting the elderly. A 1995 Nieman Fellow, she previously covered criminal courts at The Detroit Free Press, with specialized reporting on juvenile, domestic and police violence. She was a general assignment and investigative reporter at The New York Daily News and New York Post and at two northern New Jersey newspapers. She has freelanced for ABC News "Nightline, " CNN and others. Her first job after graduating from Yale College in 1980 was working as program coordinator for a nonprofit organization, paying starving musicians and other artists to perform in inner-city schools.