February 10, 2013

The New York Times shamefully no longer has a reporter assigned to cover philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. I believe the Times has also dropped its annual “Giving” section, a special segment of the newspaper that was timed with the charitable tone of America’s winter holidays.

So now every article they publish about our field is written by a reporter who is an expert in something else for which the Times has a full section – business, politics, sports, etc. – and likely a “newby” to our field. And there is no aggregated place to read this reporting, as there is with weddings and cars.

This reflects the inter-disciplinary, multi-issue and all-encompassing nature of the nonprofit sector. It also means the sector is omni-present but also completely invisible in and of itself. And it means The New York Times is chronically playing catch-up and under-attending to the scope, scale and import of this sphere.

Unfortunately, this state of things at the Times reflects the broader reality of our society.

Luckily, the latest piece, Family Foundations Prepare for the Next Generation, is by reporter Paul Sullivan, who seems to have a decent grasp on philanthropy – at least from the taxation and wealth angle. And it focuses on a useful report from serious people and institutions with deep experience in the field. The featured exemplars are more serious people who have been involved with Resource Generation (which unfortunately gets no play in this article) and other next-gen philanthropy groups over time.

This study, produced by our excellent colleagues Michael Moody and Sharna Goldseker at Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64, respectively, offers an important benchmark in understanding how generational and demographic changes will continue to shift the nonprofit sector in the coming decades. It is an important step toward understanding how funders and other influential leaders can proactively prepare for generational change on the boards and staffs of both nonprofits and the foundation themselves.

In terms of the content of the study’s findings, there are many things to dig into, and I have not made a complete analysis of all of it yet.

But I want to say one thing that I find a bit disappointing: the insidious and supposedly business-oriented notion of “measurable the outcomes” of nonprofits seems to have crept into the mindset of Millennial donors.

Is this part and parcel with the influence of technology on this cohort of young folks? Is it the influence of “philanthrocapitalism” (do your own Google search on that) and “venture philanthropy”? Or simply the hegemonic influence of the market on the public square?

Whatever the underlying causes, I do not see this necessarily positive trend. There is a reason many call the nonprofit arena the “social sector” — and not the social science sector. Nonprofits and philanthropy are all about human beings, quality of life, relationships and communities. These are often – not always – subjective in nature, not objective. While sometimes philanthropy is about hard cash, it only works as soft power. So hard numbers do not always tell the story where “soft numbers” might do the job.

The idea of obsessively measuring social change, and importing business frameworks into nonprofits, offers a  complex set of challenges that I hope to explore further on other posts on this blog. Meanwhile, for eloquent and nuanced analyses on the misnomers of this thinking, I recommend two recent pieces:

At the end of the day, it is good news that someone (or some ones) at The New York Times continue(s) to assign reporters to cover charitable giving and the next generation of leaders in our field – even if it is an uncoordinated affair. And it is important that thoughtful young inheritors and wealth earners consider carefully how they want to make philanthropy more effective – including learning why some things are best unmeasured.

As this field continues to serve America as an engine of economic growth and job creation, let’s hope the New York Times and young wealthy folks only increase their deep understanding of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

  1. P.S. The New York Times may not think the controversies of the nonprofit sector are worth covering in any cohesive manner, but at least they are allocating limited resources to reporting on the controversial debate in Pennsylvania about which is the better chain – Wawa convenience stores versus Sheetz conveniences stores. As a native Philadelphian, I am fairly loyal to Wawa and frankly had not heard of Sheetz before this story. But who cares?!

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