Checking the Headlines

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 18th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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When you grow up in a family where both parents are journalists, headlines are important.  One of my sisters actually thought in headlines:  whenever she did anything, good or bad, she’d write the headline in her head and then she’d tell my parents.  Perhaps it is why I enjoy the “virtual clipping services” that gather the headlines on a daily basis and send them to me (and everyone else who subscribes).  From a headline, I can quickly see what is going on in the world around me and decide what to pursue and what not.

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I’ve been dismayed of late by the high number of headlines noting various nonprofit employees being arrested for, convicted of, sent to jail for misuse of funds—from several thousand dollars to mega millions.

How does nonprofit after nonprofit let this happen?  It simply is no longer possible for anyone to think that such things can’t and don’t happen.  Where, I ask, yet again, are the boards of all of these nonprofits?

But I cannot heap too much scorn on them this week, as this is the week where the Attorney General of Pennsylvania—yes, the very office whose duties include providing oversight of nonprofits in the Commonwealth—was convicted of perjury and six other charges that could land her in jail for up to seven years.  One of the first rules of good leadership is that you model the behavior to which you want others to subscribe.  The group of 56 state and territorial Attorneys General in the United States are a rather elite lot.  They, like every nonprofit in the world, must maintain the public’s trust and respect if they want to be successful in accomplishing their respective charges.  Trampling that trust has severe consequences that are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.  (Just ask the Wounded Warrior Project, or Susan G. Komen)

[As an important side note, all of the other Attorneys General seem to be doing their real jobs, and, in so doing, are paying more attention than ever before to the work of nonprofits, and, apparently, they are talking more with one another about this part of their job.  The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) recently created a Charities Committee, made up of five Attorneys General—Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Hampshire—charged with facilitating dialogue, the sharing of information and the provision of support across state lines in regard to all matters charity related.  But before this committee was formed, the focus of inter-state communication and sharing of information was happening at NASCO—the National Association of State Charity Officials.  (NAAG and NASCO have been working together for 13 years on developing a national single portal for charitable solicitation registrations, and the launch of the pilot is imminent.)  And, in 2006, Columbia University Law School’s National Attorneys General State Program started the Charities Regulation and Oversight Project that provides both learning and information sharing opportunities for state charity overseers, as well as research on areas of interest to enforcers.]

But I go from shame to fame, and another headline.  About five years ago, I wrote a blog with a nostalgic bent to it as I remembered the local paper of the community where my family had a second home.  We always bought the local paper when we were there, and I loved reading about who was going off to college—or, more sadly, back then, Vietnam—who had just come back from vacation, etc.  Even though I didn’t know these people, I got a glimpse of their lives—their prides, sorrows, everyday things.  (And, as if that wasn’t enough, you could always pick up the phone and listen in on the partyline!  …we never did that!)  I was reminded of this, just now, in seeing a headline from the Holland (Michigan) Sentinel identifying the nonprofit of the week.  Wow! How nice that a paper thinks that highly of the contributions of its nonprofits that it highlights one a week.

Every week, I read the Philadelphia Business Journal that highlights a leader of the week.  Rarely, though it has been known to happen, is this leader from the nonprofit sector, despite the fact that the region is replete with excellent nonprofit leaders.  The contributions of nonprofits in larger population areas (Philadelphia’s population was estimated at just over 1.5 million, as of July 2015) is no less newsworthy or deserving of recognition than those that work in smaller population areas (Holland’s population was estimated as just under 34,000 as of 1 April 2015).  Given that we are all tainted by the brushstrokes of negative headlines, we should all push our local media outlets to pay homage to the positive work of our sector.  No doubt your local newspaper has a business-focused section, but nonprofits, still not understood by many to be a business, are absent.  It is time for this to change.  One of my great frustrations with our sector is our lack of altruism for the sector and our failure to understand our interconnectedness, such that when one is raised we are all are raised, just as when one is dinged we are all dinged.  Here is a simple action to take for the sector, as well as for “your” nonprofit.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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