Nonprofit Radio guests are routinely stolen by The New York Times. I implore them to stop.
Last week The New York Times exposed Beth Israel Medical Center’s fundraising operation as it became public through documents related to a will challenge by distant relatives of Huguette Clark, a wealthy woman who lived her last 20 years in the New York City nonprofit hospital. She died in 2011.
From the Times’ account, I see very little wrong and nothing egregious. New details may emerge and I’m analyzing what’s known today based on the linked article. (I’m much more interested in where the story ends.)
Ms. Clark was a major gift prospect, as she should be. She lived in the hospital for a long time and had her faculties.
Fundraising staff researched their prospect and the CEO was actively involved. All CEOs should be engaged in major gift fundraising. They wrote memos to each other and to the file.
It’s true: people inside charities routinely talk to each other about fundraising prospects and donors. They keep records in databases and paper files. They hold strategy meetings to manage relationships.
That’s what charities do.
It’s what they have to do to get gifts so their doors stay open. It is the way fundraising gets done in the charity business.
Surprisingly, the Times article lacks this context. There’s no commentary from a person with knowledge of fundraising practices to say, presumably, that there’s not much in this story that’s out of the ordinary.
What I didn’t like is the unprofessionalism of some notes and the unbridled exuberance that led a staffer to use seven exclamation marks to announce a gift of a painting. And there are snarky comments, too.
Those instances were poorly judged and thoughtless. Not illegal. Not unethical. Just thoughtless.
Never put in writing something you wouldn’t want the person you’re writing about to read. Keep your notes factual.
My greatest interest is the last paragraph of the Times’ article. Within 20 days of signing her first will, which did not include Beth Israel, the CEO met with Ms. Clark three times. Three weeks after the last of those visits she executed a new will with a $1 million bequest for the hospital. That’s the will under dispute.
Now we’re squarely in my territory, Planned Giving.
- Did an attorney prepare the wills?
- Did the same attorney prepare both?
- Were they executed in compliance with New York law? (The first will is dubbed “sparse.”)
- Were the attorneys recommended by the hospital?
- Did hospital staff have meetings with the attorneys?
- Who paid the attorneys?
- How many people were in the three meetings with Ms. Clark?
- What was said?
- How did she react?
- Did other staff meet her between the two wills?
- What did they say and how many people were in those meetings?
Nearly everything leading up to the first will is business as usual, as far as we know.
For me, the end of the story begins the most interesting inquiry.
The reality is The New York Times pulled a deeply experienced journalist off the philanthropy and nonprofit beat. This is foremost in my mind. I wrote about it last week, and the slightly more widely read Chronicle of Philanthropy covered it the week before.
Then why am I bothered seeing more Times pieces in my “philanthropy” alerts than usual? Because I can’t help but worry it’s an early barrage to appease the nonprofit community so we won’t object to losing our voice at the national desk.
I still say having a reporter devoted exclusively to a beat is better than having multiple reporters across desks thinking about that beat from time to time. She develops sources and builds relationships and asks people what they’re seeing. She thinks about news from a singular perspective to discern trends and make analysis. She devotes time to research in addition to covering news items.
The beat won’t get the attention it deserves over the medium- to long term. Inattention won’t start today, but soon, in weeks or months, and then it’s interminable. (The Times is counting on us having a collective short memory.) That means the charity beat suffers. That means the charity community suffers because information and coverage are power and voice.
I don’t like to see the charity community suffer. Do you think it will? Or am I alone here?
I am appalled that The New York Times dropped philanthropy and nonprofits as a full time beat, saying it will be handled “across news desks.”
There is so much that’s interesting in the charity community as
- compliance and oversight tighten
- new types of organizations blur the line between corporate and charitable
- tax reform looms
- the estate tax’s future remains uncertain
- the charitable deduction is in the cross hairs
- the economy creeps out of recession
- illegal lobbying and political activity charges emerge in an election year
- the Republican nominee announces a charity platform
- nonprofit hospitals await the final word on healthcare reform
- state and local governments continue to look for new revenue
- 20- and 30-somethings become more involved in social change
- baby boomers get deeper into retirement
- measuring “impact” grows in stature
- new social networks like Pinterest emerge
- religious organizations slowly lose fundraising market share
- climate change worsens and environmental and healthcare groups react
- Syria erupts and social justice and humanitarian groups react
- Arab nations reform and women’s groups react
- Vladimir Putin regains the Russian presidency
- European countries’ austerity measures leave needs unmet
Added on March 13, 2012 – since this was published yesterday:
- Philanthropy is a top growth industry
- Oklahoma State University cannot recoup millions lost in insurance fundraising promoted by T. Boone Pickens
Precious few of these are stories that will grab the news desks’ attention. They emerge as trends over time and will get displaced each day by the urgencies that fly across news desks.
Philanthropy and charity, our third sector that represents about 10% of the U.S. gross domestic product, demands someone who is each day thinking about that beat, sifting the news for patterns and looking at the day’s happenings through the lens of the charity community.
You’re not going to get that without a devoted, full time reporter on the beat.
The Times should restore philanthropy to an exclusive national news beat and put Stephanie Strom (or someone with equivalent experience and contacts) back on it.
This two minute clip sort of captures my sentiment.
Yesterday, Sean Stannard-Stockton was anointed Prince of Philanthropy. The auspicious event occurred in the Giving section of The New York Times, where crowning was presided over by the queen, Stephanie Strom.
To avoid confusion in the royal record, I make it clear that none of the family have ever claimed these titles. In fact, they might be embarrassed by the pomp. I am bestowing them. That gives me the rank of jester (lest you think I aggrandized myself into a more exalted station).
In a contribution to yesterday’s annual section, “Pledge to Give Away Fortunes Stirs Debate“, the Queen of Philanthropy dubbed the prince by giving him a splendid second-paragraph quote in Title Case. The honor is deserved. Prince Sean has been blogging since 2006, when his first post welcomed us to “The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy.” That is the phrase quoted in yesterday’s refulgent decree. (There seems to be some confusion over proper use of title case. The senior family member does not capitalize “the” while her junior does. Royal style manuals may differ, and I am not one to quibble. I leave that to the royalty watchers on the sidelines.)
The prince enters the court with family. He is married with two young children. Thankfully, the U.S. will be spared the spectacle the U.K. is now suffering over Prince William, leaving, over here, many chagrined royal family commentators.
I confess I have confused the prince’s name in my mind. For a time, I thought his surname to be Stockard-Stanning. I’ve always been a fan of the closely-named actress and her roles in “Grease” and “The West Wing.” The jester is a sucker for royalty.
It is now the day after our propitious ceremony. The philanthropy community will take this all in and the prince begins to settle into his august role. As it is Friday, Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio is live at 1PM Eastern. I proudly provide the anticlimax.