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”).
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.