By Stephen Neukam
My introduction to journalism, generally and certainly as a student, taught me that the primary purpose of the institution was to hold government power to account. Undoubtedly this is true — our experiment in democracy would not be as far along without the third estate. Beyond government oversight, we become aware of other functions that journalism serves — business news, sports, popular culture, etc.
I would argue that an area not commonly thought about is one of the most important areas of oversight that journalists should focus on. The nonprofit sector, expansive as it is, with organizations, focused on issues from A to Z, requires better journalism.
My awareness of nonprofit oversight did not begin with this internship. My interest first piqued when I read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, an investigative book into how right-wing billionaires, namely the infamous Koch brothers, used nonprofits and philanthropies to influence politics. I thought then, as I often think now, how in the world would we have known anything about this without a journalist’s inquiry?
Since then, through my studies and my journalism, I have become aware of the importance and people’s increasing stake in the nonprofit sector. If I can briefly, I would argue that this is a byproduct of the changing nature of American government. It shifted, in the last few decades, away from the activism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and moved toward the free market principles of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the mainstream of both major parties.
This is not to make an assessment of the merits of this shift. Instead, I am trying to explain why I think people have become more dependent on the nonprofit sector. As social programs contracted from the level of Roosevelt in throes of the Great Depression and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the number of nonprofit organizations ballooned. Many of these organizations were and are committed to social causes, such as food security, affordable
housing, gun violence, racial justice and health care.
At some time or another, the government was more committed to tackling at least most of these issues than it is today. As the government slipped out of that role, something was going to fill the void. In many cases, what picked up the slack was nonprofit organizations. This is why I think people hold a large stake in the operation of not for profit organizations — they provide a
lot of the services that are in the public interest. Of course, we allow these organizations tax- exempt status and many of them rely on our donations and support to operate. At the least, we should expect that they are run responsibly, and if they are not, we will rely on responsible journalism to hold them accountable.
As a journalist, I can say that the task of covering nonprofits as your beat is not easy. The learning curve is difficult. Understanding the inner workings of nonprofits, sifting through IRS forms and getting down the functions of the sector takes time and commitment. Really, it requires education. The same way that universities offer concentrations in sport and broadcast journalism, young journalists need the opportunity to hone their skills around the nonprofit sector.
Such a shift in priorities and focus would gear the next generation of reporters with the tools we need to do the job effectively. As people become more reliant on nonprofit organizations for public services, journalism must adapt to the changes and cover them comprehensively. The initiative and diligence of journalists have provided the backbone by which American democracy stands. We must continue to expand our institution to cover what matters today.