Over at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, blogger Allison Gauss noted the recent bad press relating to The Red Cross’s response to the Haiti earthquake and suggested three possible reasons for the skepticism about nonprofits. First, people apply prevailing norms of self-interest to nonprofit leaders and assume that the leaders must be in it for their own private gain. Second, Gauss speculates that people assume that nonprofits feel morally superior, so “portraying nonprofit staff as corrupt or greedy cuts them down to size and mitigates the moral threat.” Third, Gauss suggests that people assume that nonprofits are inherently less competent than for-profit businesses.
According to Gauss,
The vitriol concerning nonprofit misbehavior is often out of proportion with reality. Unfortunately, the fear of being tricked and exploited is extremely effective at provoking public disdain. If readers do not closely study these stories of purported nonprofit scandals, clickbait articles can damage or even destroy the organizations they feature.
Gauss may be correct in saying that biases may fuel negative public views of nonprofits. I’d urge nonprofits, however to take different lessons from such stories. Compared to stories about for-profit corporate malfeasance, nonprofit hit pieces are rare indeed. When they occur, however, they create teachable moments for nonprofit practitioners. Right now, before a reporter calls you, consider the following questions:
1. Can you explain, simply and effectively, what you do, why you do it, and how you do it? If you can’t explain this in a staff meeting so that a five-year-old would understand, you will never be able to explain it when the cameras are rolling.
2. Do you know what your customers want, so that if challenged, you can demonstrate that you are meeting a direct need articulated by your target community? If you cannot illustrate this with concrete data, under pressure you will sound like you “know better” than those you are trying to help.
3. Do you use reasonable metrics to measure your impact, and do you have data to support the impact you make in your community? The best way to counteract perceptions of incompetence is with hard data demonstrating that you make a difference.