Philanthropy Media Panel

I had a great time sitting on the philanthropy media panel yesterday. There was strong interest from reporters at many top outlets such as Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg and others. Both Mitch Nauffts of Philanthropy News Digest and Bruce Trachtenberg of the Communications Network were in attendance and have blogged about the session:


As you’d expect, the panelists spent a lot of time talking about the economic meltdown — "a once-in-a-generation moment," to quote Bishop — and its impact on nonprofits and philanthropy. All agreed that 2009 would be a tough year for nonprofits — and that 2010 was likely to be worse. Johnston was blunt in highlighting the vulnerability of organizations that depend on government contracts ("payments will be delayed, reduced, and/or cut altogether"), bank credit lines, and individuals’ discretionary income. Palmer made the important point that those who think downsizing of the sector will be a "rational" process are kidding themselves. She also urged those present to link what are sure to be rising rates of homelessness, domestic violence, divorce, and other social ills to the downsizing of the sector.

For Bishop, one of the big stories in 2009 will be whether and what wealthy "philanthrocapitalists" — and there are still many around, despite the $30 trillion that has been vaporized in the meltdown — do to "reframe" the issue of growing inequality in society — a trend, he noted, that "is not going away." "The rich," said Bishop, "are much more interesting in this kind of environment then when they are just splashing cash." But they’ll have to be seen as being proactive and constructive — or face a backlash of a kind this country hasn’t seen in decades.

Re-framing was also on the mind of Stannard-Stockton. But rather than focus on what the rich are, or are not doing, he urged those present to talk and write about how social media and Web 2.0 technologies are catalyzing a new wave of citizen engagement and drawing power away from the usual suspects.


The good news is that there’s interest in philanthropy and that those who cover the topic either routinely or as part of other things they write about are looking for tips, guidance sources, types of stories, facts, figures, etc.

The bad news: few foundations were mentioned during the 90-minute gathering either as primary story topics or as sources for leads. Instead, the interest mostly zeroed in on identifying notable nonprofits, and how they are likely to fare in the days ahead — will they be forced to merge or will they go out business? — as well as what kind of role the Obama administration is expected to play in funneling public dollars to organizations on the forefront of delivering social services in communities.

To his credit, Tactical Philanthropy’s Sean Stannard-Stockton, a panelist, mentioned several foundations he follows, and why.  In addition he handed out a reprint of a nearly three-year-old Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed that I co-authored, along with Grant Oliphant, chair emeritus of the Network and president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, arguing media coverage of foundations was falling far short.

…It’s almost three years later.  Why is it still so difficult for many foundations — except the largest — to be seen as worthy stories, or more than funders of their grantees?  What can we do to increase coverage and “encourage” philanthropy beat reporters to actually write more about foundations?

My core message to the journalists was that the “big stories” in philanthropy right now are not the ones about “big money” but those that explored “big innovation/impact”.