Frequently I hear a fellow fundraiser complain that the mainstream press only ever covers the bad news stories about charities. This complaint has become more prevalent ever since the various scandals in the UK have arisen over the last few years.
For me, this attitude isn’t sufficiently based in reality to be credible. When has the mainstream press ever prioritised good news? Have you read the news recently? It’s generally all pretty terrible.
I do empathise with the sense of frustration, though. Charities only tend to get covered when: a) one of them has done something bad; b) one of them hasn’t actually done anything wrong, but the press claims foul play regardless; c) a spokesperson is commenting on something related to the cause; or d) a celebrity is involved in doing something eye-catching.
The public sees charities as cuddly, which is nice, but it hits our credibility
In the UK, there is often a tension between how the public sees charities – and expects us to act – and the practical realities of running a complex organisation on a shoestring. The public often expects charities to be staffed by volunteers, and the reaction towards any six-figure salary is often very negative.
Vu Le has written extensively about the harmful impact of such beliefs in the US. And they hurt us here, too.
The mainstream dialogue about charities is limited. I suppose the concept of “charity” often hits emotional buttons, especially when coupled with stories of real or supposed wrongdoing.
What if there was a more cool-headed, yet still compelling way to engage the world in our work?
Charities are complex, fascinating and difficult to run
I often wonder why we rarely see charities covered in the mainstream business press.
Maybe this is my inner charity nerd coming out, but I think some of the challenges faced by the sector are unique and fascinating. Balancing restricted grants against running costs? Mergers? Innovations in project delivery?
We see similar detail about commerce in the business sections of newspapers. I suppose that’s often linked to share prices and investments. But we’re often told to manage major donor relationships as if they’re investing in us like they do in businesses. Understandably, they want to see bang for their buck, and they need to have confidence in the senior management team.
Getting journalists interested might not be totally impossible
Private sector professionals may very well be interested in the inner workings of charities – especially if they are considering their philanthropy. So I believe there’s an audience for charity news that goes beyond the trade press.
I’m not being completely speculative and idealistic: I note with great interest that Harvard Business Review occasionally runs articles on American nonprofits, including in-depth features.
I expect that HBR has substantial resources – perhaps more than the UK business press. It’s also notable that their charity opinion pieces are by people with substantial standing and reputation beyond the charity world, such as Dan Pallotta. The voice of the charity mainstream is missing.
Maybe some of our sector leaders should pitch more often to the business press. Perhaps charity PR departments could consider it as an option, although it’s not my area of expertise: possibly they do already and have encountered barriers. If so, it would be worth considering what we can do to overcome these barriers and get journalists interested.
If we can better publicise the challenges we face, perhaps our work – and our leaders – will be more widely respected and admired beyond our own circles, and we’ll be less likely to face situations like this.