Why is it that the nonprofit sector in the United States—which, in aggregate, is comprised of more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations—gets so little attention from the mainstream media?

Of the top 10 US newspapers by circulation, none have dedicated philanthropy beat reporters, while 9 of the 10 have auto industry reporters and 8 of the 10 have food industry reporters. The beat reporter designation is important because it means the publication has a dedicated person responsible for covering a designated industry in depth and with sophistication.

The Washington Post—the hometown newspaper for Washington’s policymakers—lost its philanthropy beat reporter in 2008. The New York Times—which still sets the agenda for much of what is considered important in media coverage of business, government, culture, and consumer affairs—dropped philanthropy as a formal beat a little over a year ago. That reporter, Stephanie Strom (who was widely viewed in the nonprofit sector as both eloquent and insightful), now covers the food and beverage industry. Similarly, USA Today lost its dedicated philanthropy reporter in January 2012. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the sector is confined to daily profiles of individual nonprofit personalities called “Donor of the Day.” 

What does this mean in real terms? It means that important stories about the role of nonprofits in a civil society don’t get covered. Take for example just three stories that Ms. Strom wrote in 2011, while still dedicated to the philanthropy beat: “I.R.S. Handling of Donations Draws Ire of Both Parties,” “Off the Media's Radar, a Famine Attracts Few Donors,” and “Philanthropists Start Requiring Management Courses to Keep Nonprofits Productive.” The focus on these articles in a high-profile publication creates real visibility on these issues.

Broadcast journalists, for the most part, cover philanthropy largely in the context of US-focused disaster relief (think Sandy and Katrina, and the Oklahoma tornadoes). Even then, the focus is typically on “the human element”—how people deal with natural disaster and tragedy. National Public Radio, while it also focuses on issues such as disaster relief, seems more interested in covering public policy and social issues like homelessness or voting rights, rather than the nonprofit sector. 

The philanthropy trades—Philanthropy Journal, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly, and others—obviously cover the nonprofit sector and do it well, but their articles are for people in the field, talking to peers. Valuable? Yes. Capable of informing national opinion on possible non-governmental solutions to societal issues? Not likely.

Why the lack of mainstream media interest in a sector that contributes so much to economic, civil, and cultural life in America?

The cynical response is that the nonprofit sector doesn’t advertise. Let’s put that aside.

A more reasoned response would be that the nonprofit sector isn’t a business; and that’s certainly true in the sense that it is by definition not for profit. But that analysis ignores the sheer breadth of the nonprofit sector’s economic impact. In 2010, nonprofits accounted for 9.2 percent of all wages and salaries paid in the US, and the nonprofit share of GDP was 5.5 percent in 2012.  To put that into context, both the automotive and food and beverage industries account for 4-5 percent of GDP, and consumer products account for some 6 percent of GDP, according to government statistics.

A third response might be that there is a practical difficulty of covering a sector that has the size, breadth, and diversity of American nonprofits. And that response may get us closer to the answer. There are 963,255 public charities; 97,941 private foundations; and 490,509 other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations, and civic leagues.

But it isn’t simply that the nonprofit sector is large, diverse, and inherently unwieldy. The mainstream media is really missing the boat in not attempting to understand the sector’s non-economic impact on our country, our citizens, and our civic capital, as well as its proven ability to both innovate and implement in human services. And that’s important, particularly in an environment where government at all levels is strapped for the resources needed to invest in human services.

Nonprofits are incubators of programs and solutions that can really make a difference in how well and effectively we as a people address societal issues—whether or not they require government support. Examples abound. A local initiative by the Junior League of Calgary (part of my own organization) in the early 2000s, for example, became a pioneering program called Kids in the Kitchen that unites parents and children together in the anti-obesity movement. The program is now in its eighth year, and more than 200 Junior Leagues in Canada, the US, Mexico, and the UK have implemented it. There are other examples, but the point remains that nonprofits can try new things, experiment, and look at what works.

The ability of nonprofits to marshal volunteer resources to respond to problems large and small is also often overlooked. About 64.5 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, nonprofits enable women and others to gain leadership experience that can exponentially increase the capacity of local communities.

Is this enough to convince the mainstream media to start covering the nonprofit sector as a source both of compelling ideas that address some of our most important societal problems, and as a major source of jobs and other economic activity? Probably not.

In the interim, then, perhaps we as leaders of nonprofit organizations large and small need to do a better job of explaining—to borrow a piece of business jargon—our value add. Because it’s a great story!

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