Nonprofits Need Counter Narrative to Recession Rhetoric

Print Share on LinkedIn More

May 24, 2011; Source: New York Post | Before I am accused of opinionating in a news space, let me claim it. This newswire is more editorial opinion than news but it flows out of NPQ’s news monitoring. In our view there are increasing numbers of media based conversations going on about overspending by nonprofits. Some of it, of course, is legitimate and some of it is absolute nonsense, and some is a combination of the two. This particular article that pits the survival of New York’s cultural institutions against the survival of its firehouses is a case in point.

The headline reads, “Keep the Firehouses, Lose the Brie,” and then it goes on to paint the arts organizations as bastions of the “cultural elite”. Regrettably, this comes in the wake of yet another expose of salaries at those very institutions and the argument may pluck at the heartstrings of many who would rather not have their houses burn down and are making less than a tenth – no, less than a twentieth – of the aforementioned salaries.

Says the author who is purportedly measuring the wisdom of spending a tax dollar one place rather than another, “Remember, these groups are supposed to be nonprofits – not Fortune 500 firms whose ‘return on investment’ is diverted to CEO paychecks. Yet they're fighting budget cuts that will mean less aid for them.”

Of course it is maybe an unfair either-or proposition but that’s what makes rhetoric the fascinating thing it is. I’m not piling on – I’m just saying that nonprofits need to pull together an effective counter narrative (and we need to get a grip on our salary structures) or we will be consumed by antipathy – much of which would be far more productively aimed at big business.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Lee O’Neill

    The difficulty in establishing a “non-profit narrative” is that the general impression of non-profits with the public and the media are the large universities, hospitals, and arts organizations that really are very similar to large businesses. In most major metropolitan areas, the most visible non-profit is likely to be a research university with dozens of administrators and professors with salaries higher than $300k, athletic coaches with salaries higher than $1M, endowments the hundreds of millions (if not billions, huge real estate holdings, and runaway tuition inflation. If its not a university, its a hospital, or an art museum or a symphony, but in any case our largest and most visible non-profits are consistently sending signals to the public that non-profits are big, arrogant, over-paid, bloodsuckers catering to intellectual/financial elites. How many food banks could be funded by a football coach’s salary? How many homeless could obtain temporary shelter through the sale of the faculty club? How many nutrition counselors in inner city schools could be hired if there was greater cost control in hospitals? And finally, why are symphony orchestras incorporated as non-profits while jazz bands or folk artists are not?

    As the CFO of a non-profit that is starved for resources, I have more trouble coping with the abuses of the larger non-profits than I do with many of the alleged abuses of the business community.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    A well reasoned and thoughtful argument Lee. I know what you mean about the larger nonprofits sending out false but amplified signals but I also think we can assume that the increasingly showy abuses of the business community are far more than just alleged. Am I wrong?

  • Lee O’Neill

    There is no doubt that the abuses of the Lehman Brothers, Goldman-Sachs, and Countrywide Mortgage of this country are real. And while we’re talking about “showy abuses” we probably ought to mention the money being paid to actors and athletes. Having said all that, though, I just want to make two more points. The first connects to your original article. The Post article was feeding off the abuses of the large non-profits and it wouldn’t be hard to find equivalent articles in the press or on CNN that condemn the entire business community because of the actions or Bernie Madoff. Is that because the media isn’t capable/willing of nuance, consumers of media aren’t sufficiently sceptical when evaluating what they read or see, or the “regular” non-profit and business communities haven’t developed compelling narratives? Probably a combination of the three.

    But the second thing I have to add is that non-profits have been given a privileged status through the tax code. We not only don’t pay taxes on our income, contributors are allowed to reduce their taxes by giving some of their money to us. I think that indicates an assumption of high ethical character on the part of organizations that have charitable status. That makes it all that more painful when nonprofits don’t live up to that standard.