What’s News in the Social Sector?

An event isn’t newsworthy if it is widely expected to happen. The media doesn’t run news stories about the sun rising in the east for instance. But if one day the sun rose in the west or didn’t rise at all, you can bet that would be a huge news story.

Unfortunately, the social sector is plagued by the misperception in the media and among the public that doing great social impact work is easy and common place. This misperception skews news coverage of our sector so that fraud and scandal often make headlines (“A charity, doing something illegal?! That’s news!”) while a charity producing amazingly high levels of cost effective social impact is at best a feel good piece buried deep in the paper (“A charity doing great work? Isn’t that what they’re suppose to do? I don’t see the news angle”).

Recently, Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell wrote about how this dynamic influences the attention that GiveWell gets for their work:

Our default assumption, or prior, is that a charity – at least in one of the areas we’ve studied most, U.S. equality of opportunity or international aid – is falling far short of what it promises donors, and very likely failing to accomplish much of anything (or even doing harm). This doesn’t mean we think all charities are failing – just that, in the absence of strong evidence of impact, this is the appropriate starting-point assumption.

Many others seem to have the opposite prior: they assume that a charity is doing great things unless it is proven not to be. These people are shocked that we hand out “0 out of 3 stars” for charities just because so little information is available about them; they feel the burden of proof is on us to show that a charity is not accomplishing good. When someone asks them to give to a charity, they usually give.

This puts us in an odd situation: we have very little interest in bad charities, yet others are far more interested in us when we talk about bad charities. To us, credible positive stories are surprising and interesting; to others, credible negative stories are surprising and interesting.

…Since day one of our project, our priority has been to identify top charities. When we see a promising charity, we get surprised and excited and pour time into it; when a charity looks bad, we move on and forget about it. Yet others find a report on a great charity to be mind-numbing, and are shocked and intrigued when they hear that a charity might be failing.

Interestingly, the business press doesn’t hold these same misperceptions about for-profit companies. It is widely understood that making a profit is rather difficult. While there are certainly stories about fraud and mismanagement of for-profits, there is also tons of coverage given to companies who are doing well. This is because it is understood that what should be expected in the for-profit sector is that some companies will fail, many will do OK and a few will produce outstanding results. The key to understanding the newsworthiness of for-profits doing great is the acceptance that most companies produce mediocre results.

What this means for the social sector, is that it is incredibly important that as a sector we come to accept that most nonprofits and most philanthropists are producing mediocre results. If we instead continue to pretend that most nonprofits are doing great work and most philanthropists make great grants, we will continue to limit attention and capital flowing to the nonprofits who are really making a difference.

Doing good is hard. Things that are hard don’t get done very often. Accepting these facts is critical if we care about creating a better world.


  1. Your post about what’s news (and more is not) reminds of the time I tried to pitch an editor about a foundation grant. He said to me, “Tell you what…the fact that you are making a grant isn’t news. But when the day comes you’re announcing that you aren’t making grants anymore, that will be news.”

    That said, and again speaking from a foundation perspective, the sector still has a distance to go to helping the press and the larger public understand its work, its accomplishments, and why it adds up to more than just making grants.

  2. Bruce, as someone who runs a network of foundation communication professionals, what role do you think the foundation sector has to start teaching the public that most foundations do mediocre work? It seems to me that this is quite critical.

  3. I presume you have your tongue pressed against your cheek when you say that? If not, I’d love to know the basis for such a broad indictment. If you want examples to prove the opposite, I can certainly help there.

  4. Sorry, mediocre was the wrong word to use. I meant average. By definition, foundations as a groups are doing average work. They aren’t all doing great work, right? Just like all for-profit companies aren’t great. Most are average, some are bad and some are great. Or, as Jim Collins said when he rejected the idea of the social sector adopting business methods, “Most businesses – like most of anything else in life – fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great.” That’s all I was trying to say.

  5. Appreciate the clarification

    It still seems to me that a greater awareness of what foundations do, how they do it, and more specificity about their accomplishments (especially against goals) would help the sector and the public overall. If more is made clearer, then people can come to their own conclusions about how well foundations are doing their work.

  6. Rich Polt says:

    Sean, Bruce … I’ve been contemplating my response on this thread for a while when it suddenly dawned on me, I have no idea what you are debating/discussing. Can one of you succinctly state what the goal is that you would like to achieve? What is success?

  7. Hi Rich,
    Speaking for myself, I was simply engaging in a friendly back and forth with Sean about the need for foundations to do the best possible job they can in explaining how they work, what they’re trying to do, as well as what they’re accomplishing.

    As an aside, for an excellent summary of how a foundation approaches its communications strategically, you might like to read this chapter in the current Robert Wood Johnson Foundation anthology, “To Improve Health and Health Care,” http://www.rwjf.org/files/research/4230.pdf

  8. Rich, I think Bruce and I talked past each other a bit! The point of my post was that as a sector, we need to become comfortable with the idea that most nonprofits and most foundations do average work. We have a tendency to pretend everyone is above average and this feeds into a cycle where the only newsworthy event is when a charitable organization does something wrong.

    My question to Bruce was trying to get at what responsibility foundations might have in helping the public understand that most nonprofits (and most foundations) are average. I’m suggesting that only celebrating good works sets up a dynamic where people only pay attention when something bad happens. See the GiveWell post for reference.

  9. Rich Polt says:

    I think the question should be reframed. The onus should not be on foundations to demonstrate that most nonprofits are “average.” Rather, the onus should be on all funding bodies to show that few nonprofits are “superlative.” It achieves the same goal but casts the issue in a much more positive light.

    This behooves foundations because it shows the world that they aren’t just supporting organizations where there is a personal connection. Instead, they are making informed decisions about grantmaking based on those that set the bar highest.

    The real trick — one which is discussed at length on this blog — is how to find standard measures that tell us who is average and who is not. Which brings us full circle back to Holden’s post…

  10. Paul Botts says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post, particularly its final two paragraphs.

    And as a foundation program director myself I was quite comfortable with Sean’s first reply exactly as stated: I have little doubt that most foundations today are doing “mediocre” work. (If the sector gets serious about measuring outcomes and about transparency then perhaps that assertion can ultimately be proven wrong; in that case I’d be happy eat whatever flavor of crow seems appropriate.)

  11. Mitch Hurst says:

    There are a number of complex factors in the business sector that determine how effective brands are/become, how products get marketed and sold, and how relationships are developed with consumers. A lot of these factors relate to how corporations talk about themselves and their competition. Competitive forces that simply don’t exist in the foundation marketplace help drive more information about corporations, their performance, and their products to consumers. We’ll never see a television advertisement for Foundation X stating why its approach to tackling health care is more effective than Foundation Y. The absence of market forces breeds collegiality among foundations. There’s an upside to that as well, which I wrote about a while ago in this blog post –> http://www.mitchhurst.com/2009/07/collegial-marketing.html. Thanks for getting the discussion going, Sean.

  12. Phil Nash says:

    Part of the problem in talking about philanthropy’s “effectiveness” is that all of the really big “in the news” problems we try to tackle just keep getting worse year after year. At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves and the world. Homelessness? Worse. Hunger? Worse. Obesity? Worse. Public education? Worse. Climate change? Worse. Civil discourse? Funding for this, that, or the other noble cause? Worse.
    The “getting worse” narrative in the independent sector is how we try to focus media attention (and the public’s) on how bad the problems are that we are trying to solve. Perhaps this is also how we justify our own existence. So, it’s not hard to see why philanthropy doesn’t get much credit for improving the world when we’re the messengers about how everything just keeps falling apart.
    But there are some “getting better” stories that the media sometimes finds in the clutter. Cancer? Better. Infant survival worldwide? Better. Longevity? Better. Maybe we need to find more of the “getting better” stories and push those.

  13. Phil, love your comment. It is right on the mark. My point here is that the social sector is largely responsible for crafting the narrative that people use to understand our sector. A narrative that tells people that everyone who is trying hard is doing good undermines the sector. So does a narrative that offers a steady drumbeat of “things are getting worse!”

  14. Laura Deaton says:

    And, a narrative that says, “The sector as a whole is mediocre or average yet there are a couple of rock stars and a bunch of duds?” Do we really think that will serve us well in the media? Let’s be honest. Good media stories have “hooks” and the words mediocre and average are well, ho-hum. Hooks are usually the stories that leverage someone’s “prior” and those are likely to be at either end of the bell-shaped curve (terrible and superlative stories). If we really want to shift the narrative in the sector, we can help the folks who have superlative stories yet who are telling them in ho-hum ways do so more effectively. And, quite frankly, we can continue to shed the light on the folks who are not “doing good” and who are branded in the middle of the pack (or even worse, at the top). If we push folks out of the average and to whichever tail makes the most sense…that’s going to create the hooks and get the sector as a whole more coverage. If we do that, though, we better be damn sure that we’ve got high confidence in both the left-tail and the right-tail star ratings, and I’m not thinking that we’re quite there yet, personally. Also, perhaps we should also realize that if we’re going to force-rank them, we should also be giving them ALL the tools they need to end up on the right end of the curve? Now THAT would be a real change in the narrative.

  15. Great points Laura. Let me rephrase what I was trying to say, because you’re spot on that it sounded like I was saying we needed a new narrative about how average most orgs are.

    What I was trying to say was that an authentic narrative that points to superlative stories has as a backdrop the assumption that most organizations are average. Instead, people in our sector often want it both ways. They want to celebrate the superlatives and if someone asks about the average orgs people clamor to say “they’re great too!” (or at least “they are good people who are trying hard so let’s all say nice things about them!”)

    So I agree with you. I think we’re on the same page as far as the needed narrative.

  16. In reading this thread I remember a comment that a trustee made at a session I was conducting several years ago at the Grantmakers in Health Arts and Science conference. He said, and his background was corporate where he had spent the better part of his career, that the notion that our notion and time frame for success in the social and philanthropic sector was somewhat unrealistic. He remarked on the Fortune 500 being that rare breed.

    That is not to say that we should not strive to be more effective and efficient, but I wonder if starting with being honest about what can be done (and it is perhaps less than we are comfortable with admitting) might be helpful in more accurately defining the average continuum.


  17. Jara,
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think getting a good understanding of what can be accomplished with certain sets of resources is critical. It seems to me that culturally we have a bifurcated view of the nonprofit sector. On the one hand we expect that when we donate, that all of the money goes straight to the people we want to help and that relatively small amounts of money can “save” someone. On the other hand, we don’t as a cultural fully value the work of the nonprofit sector.

    It seems to me that these sorts of paradoxes are rampant in our view of the social sector. I think the problem is that we have a weak narrative of what the social sector is all about. Narrative is how humans understand our world. Without a more robust, clearer narrative, the social sector can’t fully realize its potential.

  18. Hi Sean,

    I really appreciate your comment about the rich narrative. Recently I was doing a workshop with some foundation grantees and we spent quite a bit of time talking about what defines a strong narrative and strategies to collect, analyze and present that story that are accurate and compelling. It was inspiring to hear them ask for tools to support greater rigor in this area.

    Perhaps the tide is turning.