The death in November of Rick Cohen, national correspondent at Nonprofit Quarterly, was a sharp reminder of the painfully thin ranks of investigative reporters who monitor nonprofits.
Around the same time, however, moviegoers around the country were getting exposed to just how important a role such reporting plays, especially in holding nonprofits accountable. This weekend will put even more attention on the topic with "Spotlight," the movie about The Boston Globe’s discovery of widespread child sex abuse by Catholic priests, the running for the Academy Award for best film of the year.
Close viewers of the movie will notice that reporters assigned to what the Globe calls its spotlight team mention how the laws governing tax-exempt institutions affected what they were able to uncover. To those who remember the amazing series of reports Globe reporters did on tax-exempt organizations in 2003 and 2004 — reporting that helped pave the way for Congress to crack down on charities in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 — it’s frustrating to realize how little investigative work is now done by the nation’s mainstream newspapers, or by the growing number of nonprofit news organizations.
Instead, the media has largely been holding a love-in with philanthropy, especially its big donors. A few weeks ago, the usually hard-hitting 60 Minutes rebroadcast a 2013 interview Charlie Rose conducted with billionaires who had signed the Giving Pledge. He asked not one tough question, raising no skepticism, for instance, about the fact that the Gateses and Warren Buffett do not have any outsiders on their boards to guide their investment and grant-making decisions.
To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions, mostly concerning individual nonprofits. The New York Times and CBS did intensive investigations raising questions about the Wounded Warrior Project, Pro Publica has been writing extensively about the Red Cross’s financial and other woes, and the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting did an excellent series highlighting what they called "America’s Worst Charities." (The No. 2 group on the list, the Cancer Fund of America, was just forced to close last week.) What’s more, The New York Review of Books published a lengthy article outlining steps for robust reporting on the philanthropy of the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent.
But it’s time to spur more such reporting, in part because we can’t count on the Internal Revenue Service or other government bodies to do what it takes to clamp down on nonprofit abuses. Nor do regulators have the power or authority to question most of what rich donors do, with the exception of making cozy financial deals or doing inappropriate politicking.
Foundations and others must do more to pump up support for investigative reporting, encourage more young people to go into journalism, and arm them with the skills and courage to question established institutions. Here are some steps that would make a difference:
Convert more for-profit newspapers and magazines into nonprofits and give them large endowments to support their operations. In January, the philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest transferred his ownership of The Philadelphia Inquirer to a new nonprofit entity. That might encourage other publishers, especially those who are already philanthropic, to consider similar moves. Small magazines could also benefit from such arrangements. For instance, why doesn’t Chris Hughes, a generous donor, donate the New Republic to a nonprofit instead of pursuing his current plans for a sale?
Endow a journal like The New York Review of Books to focus on nonprofit and philanthropic efforts. The creation of at least one such publication, if not more, could encourage young journalists as well as people who work at nonprofits to write about the field. It could prove a better training ground than today’s tepid schools of journalism.
It would also be wise for foundations to support other outlets that could publish the work of journalists and nonprofit workers. For example, they might support inserts in publications that already cover the nonprofit or academic worlds, to offer more opportunities for commentators who want to write long, thoughtful pieces about nonprofits.
Establish the Rick Cohen Memorial Scholarship program in journalism. Mr. Cohen was a terrific journalist in part because he started as a nonprofit activist. He understood what made foundations and charities work well or falter and reminded us all of the potential that smart thinkers and intrepid reporters have to transform how charities work. His loss was a big one because few reporters bring as much expertise and intensity to reporting on nonprofits as he did.
What Mr. Cohen would have wanted most — and he talked about it regularly — was a way to encourage more young people to follow in his footsteps. Let’s honor his work by offering 10 or more scholarships a year to young nonprofit workers or journalists who want to become serious investigative reporters focusing on uncovering what’s wrong with the nonprofit world.
Ideally, such a scholarship program would be run by an independent organization. But if it became part of an existing entity, it would be important for it to have its own board of directors, and a staff member responsible for recruiting applicants and making sure they are properly deployed.
Subsidize interns or early-career investigative journalists at major news organizations. Instead of underwriting specific activities at a news organization, such as coverage of education or health issues, foundations should subsidize several investigative-reporting trainees at leading newspapers. They should insist that the young reporters be overseen by seasoned investigative reporters so they could would learn the art of hard-hitting journalism by actually being given investigative assignments.
Journalism is losing many of its outstanding investigative reporters, who are either retiring (often under pressure) or leaving the field. Old-timers like Seymour Hersh could be wonderful mentors to young journalists. Foundation grants could help underwrite the cost of keeping these veterans on staffs to supervise aspiring investigative reporters.
Require that a portion of foundation grants to centers for investigative journalism be devoted to examining nonprofit behavior. It is a shame that investigative-journalism outlets rarely consider nonprofits a worthy target of their investigations. To be sure, conflicts of interests can always arise from foundation support, so it’s a tricky spot for grant-supported organizations to raise tough questions about their benefactors. But there are ways for foundations and journalists to steer clear of the ethical potholes, show some courage, and unleash more journalism focused on an important part of society that rarely gets attention.
Strengthen nonprofit watchdogs, and hire newly minted investigative reporters to bolster their work. Traditional journalism outlets aren’t the only places that would benefit from the skills of investigative reporters trained to understand how nonprofits work. If the reporters who worked on investigations like the Tampa Bay Times/Center for Investigative Reporting worst-charities list had been hired by nonprofit watchdog groups, think how much more powerful their warnings to donors could be.
The resuscitation of investigative journalism, the development of new outlets for writing and thinking about nonprofits, and the training of additional reporters and commentators to cover charities and foundations will take money, lots of it. But that’s why foundations exist — to help society better understand how to fix problems, including those at nonprofits.
For instance, the Ford Foundation is now on a quest to combat inequality. It won’t succeed unless the quality and performance of nonprofits and donors improves — and that takes a strong press, one that can provide information the public needs and assure public accountability. This is an investment the Ford Foundation can ill afford to ignore. The same is true for all other large and mid-sized foundations.
An independent and healthy press has been one of the foundations of our democracy. No one should forget this.
Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. His email address is email@example.com.