The Nonprofit Quarterly uses a unique collaborative journalism model that engages multiple contributors to identify and work on evolving stories as they develop over time. The method is well suited to make practical sense of a complex and evolving environment, and both individuals and institutions may act as contributing partners on a single story. To a certain extent, it is a dialogue—or a multiparty conversation—on complex topics that benefit from many viewpoints alongside validated factual content.
NPQ has been developing collaborative journalism as its core practice for a few years, but in June 2012, media guru Jay Rosen wrote a blog post entitled “Covering Wicked Problems” that neatly laid out the conceptual framework of networked journalism. (We will refer to that post below.)
Core to NPQ‘s model are our volunteer newswire writers, whose work helps us trace trends as they emerge. We thought that, at year’s end, you might be interested in some of their picks for favorites among the newswires they personally penned.
Rethinking Practice in a Technology-Rich Environment
In a world where rapid technological advances challenge legal, practical, and ethical frameworks, one finds a wealth of teachable moments. Newswire writer Jeanne Allen recognizes that these issues, as yet unresolved, are important to surface for practitioners. She says, “I am attracted to articles that cause nonprofits to rethink assumptions, especially using technology or ideas that stretch our everyday thinking. For that reason, I picked the article ‘What to Do with Employees’ High-Profile Social Media Persona?’ The concept of co-branding an individual with their current employer is both a challenge and opportunity for nonprofits. How this can and will benefit a nonprofit is still undecided and will continue to evolve.” Jeanne also wrote “8 Tips on the Effective Use of Social Media for Social Good” and “The Role of Controversy in 2012’s Top Five Nonprofit YouTube Videos.”
Jeanne also makes active use of her participation in NPQ’s newswire writer group, seeing it as a part of evolving practice. “Thanks for the opportunity to contribute. Like others have written, this forces me to stay abreast of issues and challenge my own thinking.”
Ethical Considerations in Philanthropy
Likewise, new ethical issues have emerged over the past year, many having to do with the practices of philanthropy. Corporate philanthropy is one area where we have done a number of newswires because there are so many situations in which ethical boundaries are fuzzy. Newswire writer Jennifer Amanda Jones says that she “most enjoyed writing newswires about so-called consumer philanthropy, like ‘Time to Rethink Pink’ and ‘Checkout Charity.’” She comments that, “Consumer philanthropy can be a powerful tool for fundraising; however, we do need to think critically about the potential costs.”
Although she did not write exclusively about philanthropic trends, she also wrote “Wealth and Narcissism: Is Philanthropy a Mirror on the Wall” and “Does Impact Investment Signal a Paradigm Shift?” Jennifer also penned a number of thought-provoking pieces about social enterprise, including “Social Enterprise: Making the Difference Between For-Profit and Nonprofit” and “Senior Transportation Cooperative to Start in Delaware.”
The Influence of Macro-Environmental Issues: The Economy
Rob Meiksins has written quite a bit on economic issues, and he chose “Noam Chomsky on the Class War in America” as his favorite. It is one of the most fundamental concerns of our time: What does it mean to do the work you do in the context of an ever more extreme wealth divide, and what are the dynamics and language of class war? Another article he nominated was, “Is Overaggressive Philanthropy Subverting Social Contract?”
Why these two? “Because the process of writing them made me think about how things work. While writing the one on strategic philanthropy, I found myself learning a great deal, doing some research on the people involved in the discussion and what concepts they were espousing. I found myself challenged to decide what I thought about it, asking questions like, ‘What should be the nature of the relationship between the donor and the nonprofit? Who leads, who follows, and who gets to decide what a successful end result would be?’”
Rob also wrote on other aspects of how the sector meets the economy, such as “Where Should Local Economic Development Agencies Sit?” and “Convoluted Finding in Wisconsin on Public Sector Unions.”
Big Ongoing Stories: Healthcare and the IRS
Michael Wyland is a bit of a policy wonk with a special but not exclusive interest in healthcare. He is also of a more conservative bent than some of our other writers. He nominated “all the IRS pieces [he’d] written in 2013, with special emphasis on these three: ‘IRS Targeting of Conservative Groups a Threat to Nonprofit Sector,’ ‘Inspector General’s Report on the IRS: A Summary,’ and ‘Does IRS Have Resources to Do Its Increasingly Complicated Job?’”
The reason why he spent so much time on this thread of stories? “The IRS scandal threatens the integrity of the regulation of all nonprofits. The already-fragile trust the public has in its federal tax collector has been materially harmed by the politicization of the IRS and its unusually strong oversight power. The article on IRS resources demonstrates that, even without the scandal, the IRS’s capacity for administration is slipping and will continue to do so.”
He also nominated two articles on the botched Sanford Health-Fairview merger, which was more local to his home: “The Merger That Might Have Been: Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services” and “‘Negative Sentiment Override’ in a Failed Merger.” The reason he appreciated these was because “a single event holds many teachable moments for nonprofits. Merger considerations, branding and communication, and real and perceived conflicts of interest are all woven into this story.”
The Nonprofits and Local Government Beat
Larry Kaplan is mesmerized by the local intersection of government and nonprofits. He nominated two newswires looking at the relationship between new mayor Bill de Blasio and the nonprofit community in New York City—“Is NYC’s de Blasio Really a Threat to Nonprofits? Or to the Status Quo?” and “NYC’s de Blasio’s Radical Plans to Reverse Recent Education ‘Reform’”—but he is equally interested in that intersection in smaller localities. “These two stories are classic examples of the importance of nonprofits having to work with and maintain a good relationship with the elected officials who represent their communities.”
He tracked the intersection of philanthropy and local and state governments in “Pittsburgh’s Foundations to Help New Mayor Staff Up,” “Small Maine Town Leaders Cut Local Charities out of Their Proposed Budget,” and “California Desert City Helps Local Nonprofits while Helping Itself.” Each of these stories, along with many more he penned, helped NPQ monitor an important new realm of relationship between nonprofits and local government.
Working Wicked Problems
The newswire process allows writers to explore issues that have all of the markers of “wicked problems.” Jay Rosen described these as follows:
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Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.
But it gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try things that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money, or political will. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)
In this vein, Lou Altman says his favorite newswire from this past year was “More Movement Afoot in Massachusetts for a Mandatory Outpatient Treatment Law.” He says, “I am deeply concerned with the stigma attached to mental illness, as if the mind were not part of the body. Assisted outpatient treatment is a difficult concept to judge in this light for me because of the danger to the patient and to society when mental illness goes untreated and the dangerous threat to freedom when treatment is forced upon an individual. I like to work with issues that challenge my beliefs.”
Not a View from Nowhere
But the reason why our newswire writer group is so rich is that each writer brings commitments, knowledge, and grounding to their reporting.
Again, from Jay Rosen,
“Every journalist, every writer should tell us where he’s coming from. So it is with networked beats. So it is with this beat. The wicked problems beat is not a ‘View from Nowhere’ thing. It starts from the limits of professional expertise. It is a reflection on unmanageable complexity. It preaches humility to the authorized knowers. It mocks the one best answer and single-issue people. It seeks to deliver us from denial.”
John Brothers is quite open about what informs his perspective. “My favorite newswire was the one I did on Nevada busing their mentally-ill homeless to California. It was personal for me, having been homeless, and sparked good discussion amongst my kids and me…. I also exchanged Facebook emails with the daughter of one of the daughters of the cited formerly-homeless men, which made my newswire feel more like a public service.”
John has a wealth of knowledge about nonprofit management and is able to parse some of the emerging management issues of our field with great aplomb, as he does in “Mixing Federal Funding for Expansion: One Health Center’s Approach,” “Board Files for Restraining Order against Founder, Who Still Comes into Office Every Day,” and in “Is a Renewed Economy Based on the Nonprofit Model in Our Future?”
An Artistic Approach
Eileen Cunniffe likes the stories she has done on volunteerism because she feels that that exchange is at the heart of what we do:
“I would choose ‘Pro Bono Is a Two-Way Street’ and ‘Study Underscores Health, Wellness and Career Benefits of Volunteering.’ It’s my privilege to work with skills-based volunteers and nonprofit board members every day, and these newswires illustrate why this is so satisfying—on both sides of the volunteer exchange, everyone benefits.” But she is also attentive to what is happening in the arts, covering everything from “On News of Kennedy Death: A Moment at Boston Symphony that Resonates Today” to her “Positive Trends in Arts and Culture Funding—At Least on the Surface” and “From Black Boxes to Random Acts of Culture: Opera Companies Find New Ways to Connect with Audiences.”
Weaving It All Together
Kathi Jaworski was one of our first newswire writers, and she has inspired us consistently with her intelligence, discernment, honesty, and grounded perspective. She has an enormous respect for what our readers do.
She chose “Expandable ‘Community’ to Address Poverty from ‘Ticked-Off’ Social Worker,” saying, “I still love this article because it covers the nexus of several important sector issues: the emergence of crowdfunding, the important unglamorous work of addressing persistent poverty, and the value of humanizing philanthropy. What I have found most satisfying in my contributions as an NPQ writer is when I can highlight small yet creative, compassionate and impactful nonprofits whose work bears wider attention.”
In the end, we see that the newswire helps track the progress of various emerging forces in the sector. Some of them are driven from outside, and some are our own experiments with new ideas, practices and forms in a changing environment so that we can have a hand in its development.
Thus, Anne Eigeman nominated her “UC Uses Crowdfunding in Campaign to Draw On a New Demographic.” “I like this newswire,” she says, “because it opened my eyes to some funding challenges for public institutions of higher education in California that are having a direct effect on current students. I was impressed by the range of creativity that came out in the course of Berkley’s campaign, and like one reader who expressed interest in attending the institution, I can’t stop thinking that if someone had made a promise to bake dozens of cookies during exam week when I was a student, my college experience would have probably been very different.” Anne has a very broad and deep understanding of this rich and complex sector that allows her to interpret the news she reads and covers in ways that resonate with and inform NPQ’s readers. Some great examples are “Targeted Editorial Stands Out for Separating a Nonprofit’s Poor Management from Its Value” and “Sector Jumping: GED Restructures to Go from Nonprofit to For-Profit.”
NPQ publishes close to 2,000 newswires a year. The information from them continuously evolves our understanding of the fields and environment we all work in, but the whole is like a well-woven rug, with all of the writers looking to not only the pieces they weave, but to the whole of the knowledge base we are building. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our writers for their energy and discernment and enthusiasm. Without them, NPQ would not be what it is.