The year 2009 has been an extraordinary one for nonprofits. But how has the press covered our sector over these turbulent 12 months? As you likely know already, NPQ has been following the news through its Nonprofit Newswire and what we at the Nonprofit Quarterly have found in the course of that is something of a split between national and local topics. Below we will look at what we see as being some of the themes nationally and what they were more likely to have been on a local level. Before anyone argues the obvious about this impressionistic account, however, we know not only that this list is not exhaustive and that most of the following story types likely showed up at both levels.

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  1. The country elected a president who had spent time as a community organizer…and then ACORN’s problems—which preceded Obama’s run for office and have continued to produce flashy news stories—gave community organizing a black eye as the press tirelessly pursued a story which at its base exposed a deplorable lack of transparency and accountability in that organization. (see our coverage here and here);
  2. Senator Ted Kennedy died, leaving at least three major policy initiatives affecting and involving nonprofits arguably less well defended—these are health reform, immigration and the national service agenda;
  3. Immediately before Kennedy’s passing, Congress passed and the President signed the SERVE America Act. The main story of this legislation was the promise to quadruple the size of national service programs a la AmeriCorps  making stipended volunteerism a national focus of this administration’s approach to the sector. Patrick Corvington’s appointment to head the corporation was something of a surprise to many. Corvington’s last position was as a grant officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (see item 7 below);
  4. The congress has continued to worry about the appropriateness of tax exemptions for major universities and hospitals (see also Taking Note);
  5. This administration used stimulus money and certain nonprofit networks to get work done that would backfill for problems wrought by big business. Specifically, Community Development Corporations and Community Health Organizations Community clinics have key role in health reform were awarded hundreds of millions in stimulus funding to prevent foreclosures and provide health care for the greater numbers of uninsured throughout the country but there were still plenty of earmarks and old business being taken care of in the monies spent (see our coverage here, here, here, and here). In some cases due to the weak architecture of government agencies, nonprofits have had to assume important roles in making the stimulus work. What got lost in the stimulus? It was the stimulus that nonprofits themselves needed. The Nonprofit Capacity Building program in the SERVE America act got slashed, other incentives for nonprofits to weather the economic storm failed to appear, and nonprofits got short shrift in the array of subsidies for employers in the health care reform debates (see our coverage here and here);
  6. The HeadStart/Early HeadStart network was refunded after eight years of a George W. Bush sponsored starvation campaign. ARRA funds were awarded to help HeadStarts take care of some of the after-effects of that starvation—facilities concerns, for instance;
  7. The “solutions business” as defined by a few national grantmakers in league with the Obama Administration has taken root much to the delight of some and terror of others. As with every administration this one has its catch phrase connected to a program that is meant to sum up a good part of its approach to the social sector. In this administration, social innovation or social entrepreneurism is the new keystone to the lingo. An office of social innovation has been established in the White House and a $50 million FY2010 appropriation has been made for a fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service. The corporation appears ready to hand over the bulk of implementation to intermediary re-grantors that are just about guaranteed to be foundations capable of providing matching dollars and demonstrating lots of a particular brand of “engaged” grantmaking experience. The foundations that will be chosen are being counted on for flexible dollars to match Social Innovation Fund dollars and for other big social entrepreneurial programs such as the Promise Neighborhoods replication of the Harlem Children’s Zone;
  8. The more overarching story about foundation grantmaking, however, was about dissipation. With foundations’ assets down 20, 30, or 40 percent in some cases, foundation grant dollars plunged in 2009. Even with a stock market upturn late in the year, foundation practices of multi-year averaging of their assets promises perhaps even lower foundation grant dollar outflows in 2010. The other story we saw was about national foundations changing their focus. See Consider the source: The Ford Foundation finds a needy cause: Teachers unions;
  9. Surveys, surveys, surveys. Everyone, it seems has gotten into the survey business in an attempt to track nationally the rolling effects of the downturn on nonprofit organizations. Long story short—revenue down, need up, assets waning, layoffs, dropped programs, and general resizing is the ever more consistent rule [PDF];
  10. Nonprofits are actively explored as a primary venue for journalism and health care insurance. Read these stories here, here, here, and here.


  1. State budget deficits have produced reams of stories US: Pennsylvania enters fourth month without a budget as each state cuts back in its own particular way—in some cases across the board and in some cases choosing out a smaller number of fields for really severe cuts. State legislators considering their approach to next round of cuts. Resulting stories are not only about the funding but about its effect on nonprofits, and on the government agencies Endless waits at state agencies for people in need means increased work for nonprofits they interact with on a regular basis and on the people served or not EP mental health care provider faces funding crisis;
  2. The old adage about nonprofits having to do more with less is illustrated around the country community by community as local media do stories about nonprofits which despite reduced revenues are serving as many people as possible. The fact that a good portion of those being served are newly unemployed makes this period one in which empathy likely runs high among readers;
  3. United Way and other workplace giving campaigns have seen a lot of stories this year. Some have done well but some, for the first time, have not set cash goals, and others have not met their goals, resulting in campaign extensions in some cases, or reduced payments to community groups. In some cities where United Ways have narrowed their grantee pool, traditional groups are beginning to establish their own federated giving programs Nonprofit consortium to raise funds lost from United Way
  4. All across the country we have seen stories about the levying of new or higher fees and taxes. This appears to be a natural outgrowth of the tightening of state budgets which strangles the budgets of cities and towns. In some cases the focus is on universities and hospitals and the property tax but in other cases we see states, counties and cities and towns beginning to charge fees where nonprofits have previously been exempt or increasing fees. (see here and here;
  5. There have been any number of stories about local giving by foundations, individuals and corporations—unfortunately many of these stories are profiles of organizations who are faced with very difficult choices as a result of falling short either on a campaign or in their fundraising for operating funds. Local media cover the vulnerability and closure of community institutions, whether they are libraries , animal shelters, museums  or theaters;
  6. Some states produce regular stories about abominably late payments to nonprofit service providers who are forced to act as banks to their cash strapped states by drawing on lines of credit. This highlights a long standing accountability problem that has only become worse with the recession;
  7. There have been many stories about what is being done by local groups awarded stimulus monies or left out of stimulus funding. See here, here, here, and here;
  8. Local media cover the development of new innovations and initiatives, collaborations and strategic alliances;
  9. Local media are less covering the national service agenda than they have covered the fact that the newly unemployed are showing up in ever greater numbers as volunteers. For examples, see here, here, and here;
  10. Surveys, surveys, surveys. Wise local associations are summing up the problems faced by nonprofits through well-crafted reports, which get covered and referred back to repeatedly by local press. Read here Every drop of funding counts for nonprofits in recession [PDF], here [PDF], and here, for examples of surveys by state associations.

Naturally, issues of fraud and bloated salary outrages showed up both locally and nationally with disheartening regularity particularly when so many other nonprofit staffers were taking pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs as a part of the collective restructuring that has been occurring. Discussions of renewed fundraising efforts abounded at the local level as did stories about communities pulling together in extraordinary ways as they attempt to backfill after the appalling greed of under-regulated market lords were allowed to lay waste to the lives of so many families in so many of our communities.

So to end, we thought this next story just in from Southern New Jersey was a weird small metaphor for the story of the year which is that nonprofits of all sizes and missions have faced up to the chaos of their environments and the needs of their communities with an equanimity and tenaciousness that is awesome and their communities have witnessed that strength of purpose and maturity and have begun to move forward to help in new ways. It is a moment to note and watch. Stick with us over the coming year as the Nonprofit Quarterly continues to cover and make sense of the stories and trends in our sector.