Media Coverage of Philanthropy

I don’t think the media covers philanthropy very well. I think philanthropy is full of exciting stories about innovation and impact, but too many media reports focus on big gifts without exploring the context or impact. I wrote about this back in September 2007 after a journalist posted a rant to this blog about how undeserving of coverage foundations were.

On Wednesday, I’ll be sitting on a panel with Stacy Palmer (editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy), Matthew Bishop (author of Philanthrocapitalism) and David Cay Johnston (a Pulitzer Prize winning beat reporter who helped define the “philanthropy beat” in a 1982 article for the Columbia Journalism Review). The audience will be exclusively reporters from big name, mass media publications who want to learn more about covering philanthropy.

So my question to you is: What subjects would you like to see the media cover in philanthropy? What would you tell a journalist who was new to the beat? Who (or what organizations) would you point them to as excellent resources?


  1. Hi Sean,
    Raised that exact question about media coverage of philanthropy almost three years ago in an oped I wrote with Grant Oliphant, now president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, for the Chronicle of Philanthropy which you can find here: As you’ll see, we don’t blame the media alone for this problem. Some rests with the way foundations describe their work, and often pegging it to the size of grants.

  2. Mary Galeti says:

    I think the media should be paying greater attention to NextGen philanthropists. Especially in the age of Obama, so much media time and effort is dedicated to young people volunteering in their communities. What about the young people who are not just giving their time, but also their money. Young people are getting involved in their family philanthropy, creating their own giving vehicles, and experimenting with different modes of creating impact in their communities in unprecedented numbers. Furthermore, they are testing models that are more inclusive and dynamic than their predecessors. By covering Next gen philanthropists, not only would innovative programs get recognition, but more young people might feel that they too can get involved in philanthropy and have impact, rather than feeling intimidated by mammoths like Gates and Buffet.

  3. I would point them to Kristi Heim’s new Business of Giving blog or our own Gates Keepers Where are you speaking?

  4. Great point Mary. It is on my list.

    Gates Keeper, I can point them to blogs, but what would you want them to know?

    I’m speaking in NY at a journalist only panel.

  5. Sean:

    Please tell them to cover more positive stories of philanthropy and nonprofits, especially the good things that nonprofits are doing right now during the economic down turn. See other positive stories I tagged.

    Also, as additional background for you to reference–empirical research on this topic:
    “Superficial Friends: A Content Analysis of Nonprofit and Philanthropy Coverage in Nine Major Newspapers”

  6. From the “oldies but goodies” department: Grant Oliphant, now president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, and I wrote about this topic in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in June 2006, following the media frenzy over the size of the Buffett gift to the Gates Fdn. Our piece also cites some research from earlier that year that found most media coverage to be positive, but lacking in depth. So, we still have a distance to go.

  7. Really interesting study. Thanks for pointing to it Heather.

  8. Jaison Morgan says:

    Let’s get to the bleeding edge of innovation in philanthropy. Talk/ask about prizes and advanced market commitments. The evolution of the philanthropy toolkit was stalled for hundreds of years, but we’re now seeing new faculties that are either being reinvented or that never existed before.

  9. Lisa Endlich says:

    I think that the media often makes bold philanthropic efforts look like the purview of only the very richest and famous. I know that the celebrity element makes for good copy, but it misses the point. You highlighted the Aldermans and i wrote about Charles Best of and others who have shown us all a clear path to dynamic life-changing causes. By correcting this misconception, daring philanthropy that seeks to find real change comes within all of our grasp.

    Good luck
    Lisa Endlich

  10. Thanks for all your comments. They will help inform my message on the panel tomorrow.

  11. Teri Behrens says:

    This is shameless self-promotion, but of course I’d be delighted if you shared the fact that there is now a peer-reviewed journal for philanthropy! We have the first issue available free (and in a very rudimentary form at this point!) at

  12. Hi Sean,
    Thanks for asking a fascinating question. I’m currently doing an informa exploration of how the media cover nonprofits (Heather- your link to the study was just what I needed!) and the more I learn, the more I’m on the fence.

    On one hand, I agree with Heather that more positive coverage of nonprofit and philanthropic work would be helpful. I keep a daily log of nonprofit news stories, and am often aghast at the high proportion of stories on wrongdoing by nonprofit staff.

    On the other, it must go beyond positive coverage. So many “positive” stories portray nonprofits, particularly direct-services ones, as heroes, “saving” their clients from life’s ills. This may make for a good bedtime story, but it can demean clients and gloss over real substance: why nonprofits seem like heroes (because no one else will do what we do?); the relationships between nonprofits and their communities; the responsibility of nonprofits to uphold the trust of the public, etc., etc. Substantive coverage of nonprofits must address these deeper relationships and expectations to keep from pigeonholing an organization or its clients.

    But it’s one thing to say all that and another to accomplish it. Hopefully I’ll find out more after reading the study Heather mentioned and digging around more on my own. I’m thrilled you’re sparking this conversation, Sean, and it’s great to read everyone’s feedback. Thanks again.

  13. The media certainly could cover philanthropy better, but I don?t think the answer is more philanthropy beat writers. I?m happy the New York Times has Stephanie Strom, but for most newspapers and other outlets, the more important transformation would be for issue beat writers to get deeper into stories and uncover the impact of philanthropy. A health reporter who covers attempts to reduce the obesity epidemic will run into the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation if they dig. An environment reporter looking at climate change will discover that the Packard and Hewlett foundations (and others I?m sure) were critical to the development and funding of some of the most effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions. I?m sure there are dozens of other examples, although we aren?t very good at making those connections for reporters.

  14. herman says:

    This is easy: comparisons lead to understanding.
    Compare similar — even same name — non-profits across state lines; or between same size cities.
    List the Charity Navigator Rating for each Non-Profit referenced in a story.
    Compare the Non-Profit Total performance in a topic area [ habitat preservation, supportive housing, suicide prevention, …] to the strategies and expectations of a state agency PLAN of Action in that Topic and Geography.
    Who is more effective, more efficient, has more impact: Municipal or state agency; community non-profit or state or region-wide Non-profit.
    Compare, compare, compare, compare.

  15. CB says:

    Have you seen the publications issued by the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative? They’ve given this question quite a bit of thought.

  16. It is too late here on the east coast for me to give you each a response, but I am taking notes on all your suggestions and will bring them up at the panel.

    Thanks everyone for providing so much feedback (I also got numerous emails and tweets).

  17. Dafina says:

    More media space to cover philanthropy in national, financial & lifestyle publications is required. This is currently limited to few specialist titles.