For years, Chicago’s Community Media Workshop has performed the honorable work of helping nonprofits get the attention of reporters and editors. This has involved presenting nonprofit staffers with a few unpalatable truths, specifically, that their events and programs are not news, while the media is in the business of reporting news. But this year at its Making Media Connections conference, those truths will be served up with a dollop of “telling our own stories” cream; and the Nonprofiteer wonders if that’s a good thing.
The annual conference (taking place next week, June 11-12) will feature an agglomeration of so-called Web 2.0 specialists—people experienced in using new media to get nonprofits more attention. This shift in program reflects a wider shift away from the old paradigm (businesses and charities pitch, editors decide, citizens hear the filtered result) to the blooming confusion of hyper-local Websites, social media networks, and opinion-shaping blogs and podcasts. And here are my concerns:
- The problem with “telling our own stories” is that many subjects—and writers, for that matter—are weak in the important skill of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. We all know nonprofit staffers who simply cannot comprehend how anyone could fail to be passionate about their agency’s mission, simply because they themselves have such passion. This self-righteous attitude is not only unpersuasive, it’s counter-persuasive.
- It is more important for nonprofits to do their job than to focus on media coverage. The most important question for an agency to ask at the beginning of pitching to a reporter, creating a Facebook page, or launching a blog, is, “Who are we trying to reach, and for what purpose?” If your goal is to make money jump out of people’s pockets, telling your story is less important than getting hooked up with a social-media donation site. If you want to strengthen your own advocacy efforts with legislators, telling your story is less important than identifying registered voters who will contact their elected representatives.
I’m not saying that Community Media Workshop—which also sends “news tips” to reporters highlighting the newsworthy activities of its nonprofit constituency—is doing the wrong thing by lessening agencies’ dependence on the press. If nothing else, the current emphasis on new media may help nonprofit staff educate and diversify their boards. Educate by making clear that the constant board cry—“Get some newspaper coverage!”—has even less potential today to solve a nonprofit’s financial and name-recognition difficulties than it did 15 years ago. Diversify by helping boards overloaded with old people, as most of them are, learn how to speak to the all-important next generation in its own language—or at least in its own forum.
For two decades, the Workshop has demystified the process of public communication for charities. Its new approach to teaching storytelling is a worthy and seamless continuation of that.
Kelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including Aislesay.com and Artscope.net.