Warning bells are sounding on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Daily Mail headline screamed “RNLI buys burkinis for Africans as it axes 100 UK jobs: How £3.3million of donations to lifeboat charity are spent abroad including aid for Tanzania swimmers and creches in Bangladesh.” For those not familiar, RNLI is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, dedicated to preventing drownings with lifeguards, research and education programs, and floor response.
And the article was little better, with many hallmarks of a hit piece:
–Saying an organization came under fire when it was a media-created fire? Check.
–A gratuitous, out-of-context mention of the charity’s executive pay? Check.
–Blind quotes and trashing of motivations from those let go by the organization? Check. (Extra bonus points for one of the people being sacked for baring his buttocks.)
–Quotes from politicians with blatantly nativist appeals? Check.
–Acting shocked, shocked!, that the organization does international work when it is featured in their annual report and there is a section on their web site under “What We Do” called “Our international work”? Check.
–Talking alleged controversy for 18 paragraphs then, and only then, including any context for their foreign investment being 1) lifesaving and 2) only two percent of their budget? Check and check.
RNLI rebutted the article strongly, showing pride in its international work, highlighting that it has always been a part of their charter, and has never been hidden. With such a strong response, there was both an outpouring of support with a spike in online donations and very negative responses of people looking to end their donations. A spokesperson said:
“The volume of responses we have received on this matter is vast and ongoing – the overall picture is changing constantly at the moment, so it may be several weeks before we have a full understanding of its impact on donations to the RNLI.”
Why are these warning bells? Because this can and will happen in the United States.
Try as we might to lay out our issues and solutions in as fair and non-partisan way as possible, we are entering an election year where people will likely further entrench themselves in their own filter bubbles, believing their subjective truths. Since each of our organizations is working to solve a problem, our very existence threatens anyone who wants to say there is no problem or that they have already solved the program.
If you think your organization is too apolitical to attract attention, remember that Special Olympics was on the chopping block earlier this year. Vaccines that have saved 10 million lives in the past five years are a political hot potato. If you are more universally loved that Special Olympics and more effective than lifesaving medicine, you have a chance of escaping unscathed. If not, buckle up.
And these media hit pieces are all too easy to write. As with RNLI, include the CEO’s pay to dissuade those who think all nonprofit employees must take a vow of poverty. Say nonprofits should be run more like business but include the overhead percentages to shame any money spent on HR, legal, marketing, fundraising, research, and the other essentials. Make any experiment look like a waste of resources. Get a quote from a politico who never liked you anyway and is happy to fan the “controversy.” It’s the playbook used against Wounded Warrior Project a couple years ago, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars in donations that could have helped our veterans.
So what are we do to? A few thoughts:
Be ready to act. RNLI got donations right after the story that will hopefully replace the ones it is losing and more because it acted quickly with its story through all available channels. Normally, as Jonathan Swift put it, falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it. We must be ready with our stories at a moment’s notice.
Focus on your donors. People who love you won’t leave you; in fact, they’ll be the ones defending you on social media and fighting back against hit pieces. But the world love is in there intentionally. People who like you, or enjoy getting your calendar, or donated to a friend’s walk this one time aren’t going to be leaping to your defense. It’s vital to focus on your donors to the extent that you are the charity they cannot live without and make them feel like you cannot live without them.
Get buddies and be buddies. Ben Franklin said during the American revolution that we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately. So too is it with us. Yes, you may have had your disagreements with other nonprofits in your sector about the best approaches. But if they are successfully attacked, you will be next and they won’t be there to help you. Nonprofits must treat an attack on one as an attack on all.
Be part of a larger whole. Part of why The Nonprofit Alliance exists is to explain what we do to the public. So many stories that attack nonprofits come from fundamental misunderstandings of what nonprofits do and how we do it. TNPA and others like it can be a defender when things look bleak.