Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Freedom of the press....

Got yet another call from a reporter.

I get these about once a month, sometimes more. Apparently they either find me online, or the Kellogg people sic them on me. MOST of the time, the reporters are looking into some either current or potential scandal in their community and want to know where the smoke and fire may be hiding. I listen, and usually look up the organization on line while we're talking, both on the org's website and Guidestar and, if the call is long enough, look up the paper and the reporter's articles on the subject (it's fun to investigate the investigator)

Nearly all of the time, the reporters are smart, pretty well informed about the issues, and seem pretty unbiased going in. What's depressing is what they are finding, and thinking about what the community is going to feel about nonprofits once the story is published. Abuses of power, sticky fingers in the till, conflict of interest, abuses of staff and clients; all of these glide over the phone line and into my ears.

The saddest questions are always these (in some form or other):

Are nonprofits generally more corrupt than for-profits?
What's the acceptable level of overhead for a nonprofit?
Shouldn't these organizations have conflict of interest policies?

Ouch. So much for the perception that charities are overwhelmingly acting in the public interest.

Aside: Each fall in my class at Kellogg, we have at least 3-4 students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. I always ask these students why they are in the class: "To learn more about nonprofits (good) and how to cover them intelligently (great) when they wind up having some public scandal (ouch, again)."

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