Life in 140 Characters

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 7th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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When I was growing up, we had a vacation home on the Potomac River, right outside of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We used the house primarily for weekends throughout the course of the year, with a bit more time during school holidays.  One of the first things we did as we drove into town on the way to our house was to stop and buy the current edition of the Jefferson County local newspaper (The Chronicle and The Shepherdstown Chronicle.

My siblings and I loved reading those papers.  It wasn’t that we were bereft of newspapers; we had plenty.  The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor were all delivered daily to our house, and where Saturday and/or Sunday editions existed, they came, too.  So, it wasn’t that we were wanting for newspapers; we just didn’t see newspapers like these!

These were the newspapers that made community!  You could read who vacationed where and with whom—even if it was just in the next county and the in-laws or across the ocean with a church group.  You could find out who was applying to what schools and then, months later, where people were accepted and where they were going.  And, sadly, you knew who was going off to Vietnam and when, who came back—and how.  Naturally, you learned of all of the births, deaths, marriages, fidelity, infidelity, crimes, fires, etc., and the showers, funerals, and court appearances that accompanied them.  But not just of the rich and famous, but of everyone—regardless of position in society, wealth, geography, etc.  This was a world of ordinary people doing ordinary, every day things, and the people who loved them, missed them, raised them, scolded them, talked about them—up front and behind their backs.  This was a community that knew what was going on with everyone! There were little to no secrets in that world.  The world as seen through these local papers was not the same world viewed through the eyes of The Journal, Post or Times.

I think about that world every time I read my Google Alerts and see the newspaper articles printed in some local newspaper about local nonprofits receiving local grants.  Of nonprofits asking their communities for contributions for their clothing or food drive, for presents for their Santa program, for money for a new roof for their community center.  Of the local funder or Chamber of Commerce offering a program free of charge, or not, on nonprofit marketing or how to start a planned giving program.  Of how the horses saved by the local nonprofit are doing or the success of the drive to save the nonprofit itself.  And I rejoice that in so many places around this country the challenge of doing the work of nonprofits is being exposed, their struggles made real, their successes—and their closures—celebrated and mourned.

There are almost 2 million nonprofits throughout this country.  The vast majority go unrecognized by most people, while the  100 largest—and do not for a minute equate large with good and effective—seem known by almost  everyone.  The Post, Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun Times, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. do not announce a community member’s first trip abroad or the Joneses cutting down the oak tree in their front yard anymore than they tell the full tale of the patchwork of nonprofits that support, enrich and enliven all of our lives.  And so we don’t know where the rents are in our fabric or how the talents of those who know how to darn are most sorely needed.  We do not have the information to save ourselves.

Some might say, “Not to worry, Laura!  Twitter is here!”  (I confess to feeling great sadness when I learned that I could now follow both the Jefferson County and Shepherdstown Chronicle on Twitter.)  But I got more than 140 characters to describe for me 75-year-old lace napkins used at the tea party at Susan Smith’s house and Stephen Jones said way more than that in talking about his excitement of going on his first fishing trip with his father and uncles.  You need more than 146 characters to make the connection and feel a sense of responsibility that I need to step forward and answer that nonprofit’s plea for help.

Growing up, I appreciated the world views I got from both sets of newspapers I read; one was not inherently better than the other and each was equally necessary to gain a full world view.  As we march through 2011, a year that promises for nonprofits to be harder than the previous two, we must make a promise to ourselves and our stakeholders.  Whether we live in Loving County, Texas, which claims to be the least populous county in the U.S., or in Los Angeles County, which has the distinction of being the most populous county, and anywhere in between, we must promise that we will put our story out there, successes, failures, antique napkins and all.

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.