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The Anatomy of a Charity Media Hit Piece – You Could Be Next

By Steven Nardizzi 

If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’ve likely seen the latest media hit piece on a well-known, reputable, national charity. This time, it was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The story ran first on CBS News, but then, as always happens, versions of the story were republished across multiple outlets. Of course, because media outlets know very well what sells – and nothing sells like a scandal, especially when it involves a charity. And if it sells, as the adage goes, "never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

And this story on the ASPCA has all the usual uninformed and misleading elements of every classic, cookie-cutter charity hatchet job.

Step One: Start with the overarching concept that because it is well-funded, the charity is mismanaging finances by hoarding too much money, spending too much money on fundraising and administration, or misrepresenting its financials to the public.

Step Two: Get confirmation from self-proclaimed nonprofit experts or charity watchdog groups.

Step Three: Find one or more disgruntled former employees or stakeholders to make unsubstantiated allegations.

Step Four: Highlight other charities working toward the same mission as a better place to spend your money — without using the same criteria to evaluate them.

Step Five: List the amount of money spent on executive salaries out of context to the results and impact made.

That’s exactly how the latest charity hit piece on ASPCA played out.

Step One:  The news outlet focused on the amount ASPCA spends on fundraising and administration costs versus programs. Including only those expenses the reporters deem “hands-on help with animals,” the piece asserts that ASPCA only spends about 40% of donated funds on legitimate programming. Of course, this bears no factual relation to the massive amounts ASPCA actually spends on both its “hands-on help with animals” and its advocacy for animal rights. Just take a look at the organization’s IRS 990 filings, audited financial statements, and annual reports and you’ll get a sense of the impact their making, from operating shelters and animal hospitals, to providing disaster response for animals, to advocating for domestic and farm animal protection at both the local and national level.

Step Two: The reporters spoke to a self-proclaimed nonprofit expert — in this case, an accounting professor at The Ohio State University — to confirm their allegation that only 40% of spending goes toward “hands-on help with animals,” a term used to shrink the charity’s programs to what the reporters deemed to be valid. While this accountant’s confirmation was not grounded in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and did not accurately depict the program spending reflected in the organization’s financials, apparently few can resist the camera’s allure when offered Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

Step Three: So on to step three where the reporters, unironically, interview a former fundraiser for ASPCA — an executive who helped develop some of its most effective, and costly, fundraising programs. Now working for a smaller animal rights and welfare nonprofit that has not had the same fundraising success as ASPCA, this former, disgruntled employee unsurprisingly decries the very fundraising practices she used to champion.

Step Four: This makes for a quick segue to step four, where another small animal rights and welfare nonprofit executive is decries the fact that ASPCA doesn’t provide his organization funding, as if it’s the responsibility of an organization — like ASPCA, that’s making its own incredible impact on a national scale — to fund every other charity in the country working to solve the same issues for the same cause. But that always makes for a great David-versus-Goliath angle to a story, so, of course, it’s a staple in any charity hit piece.

Step Five: Then comes the ever-popular reference to the CEO’s compensation, which is always characterized as excessive. For proper context, ASPCA’s CEO salary is less than a penny of every $3 dollars donated, which some may be surprised to learn is far less than the amount of donor dollars that goes — reasonably — to other charity CEOs. More importantly, from a performance standpoint ASPCA’s CEO grew revenue by more than $100 million and scaled programs by more than $60 million in just six years. Even with that context, some may think that the salary is still too high and someone else would do the job for less. But ask yourself: Could that other person achieve the same revenue growth and program results, and, if so, why aren’t more charities scaling to the size of organizations like the ASPCA?

While it is clear what drives this kind of reporting — ratings, ratings, ratings — what is perhaps most troubling is the silence, and sometimes complicity, of the nonprofit sector in the wake of these hit pieces. Rather than correct the record and inform the public, most will keep their heads down and be thankful that they weren’t the target of the day. Others, like the two smaller animal welfare charities that participated in this misleading report, may relish the damage done to the charity targeted and hope that this will somehow manifest in a boon to them. But the reality is these stories reinforce harmful misconceptions about all charities and just make the next hit piece more likely to happen.

Just look at some of the past, sensationalized pieces published about some well-known charities, and you’ll see how easy this hit-piece playbook can be run on any organization. In fact, when I grew the revenue for the organization I led from $20 million to $400 million in seven short years so that we could scale to help over 100 thousand veterans and families, we were the subject of several media hit pieces that used this very same script.

But if you’re thinking that this only happens to other charities, or that only large nonprofits can be subject to such misleading scrutiny, see how elements of these hit pieces can easily be applied to the two smaller animal charities that criticized ASPCA in this exact story.

Step One: Discredit the management of funds. Just look at the 990s of the two smaller animal charities that participated in the story on ASPCA and you’ll quickly understand how reporters unfamiliar with charity operations — or those who don’t personally deem certain expenses as appropriate for a nonprofit — can easily suggest that these organizations are mismanaging donor funds. Reporters could point out that each of these charities spend about 40% on staff salaries, plus other administrative and/or fundraising expenses, rather than on what they deem direct support for animals, such as food, medicine and shelter. Or, they could point out that one of these charities spent more money on insurance and education than it did on veterinary services, while the other squirreled away more in investments than its annual spending to help animals currently in dire need.

Step Three: Get allegations from disgruntled former employees or constituents. If you look at online reviews from stakeholders, employees and job applicants for the two smaller animal charities quoted in the story, whether on social media or websites like Glassdoor, you’ll see how easy it would be to bolster any misleading presentations of their financials with anecdotal stories from people with an axe to grind. The hit piece could just refer to allegations suggesting that employees of one of those organizations described a toxic work culture that focused more on fundraising than animals and gave the CEO less than a 25% approval rating, while complaints from constituents of the other organization alleged a lack of responsiveness, unprofessional staff and potentially unsafe conditions for animals.

Step Five: Highlight executive salaries without any context to the results and impact made. Finally, if you look at the salaries of the CEOs of these two smaller animal charities, it’s easy to see how their compensation — presented out of context — can paint a very unflattering picture. A reporter could simply characterize the $300,000 salary that one of those charities paid its CEO as "lavish" or "excessive" because it is so much higher than the median income for its location, or point out that the other charity spent 40% of its annual expenses – that’s a full 40 cents of every donor dollar spent – on its CEO’s salary.

Of course, if a news outlet made the above characterizations of these two animal charities it would be completely out of context and unfair – and I’m certainly not suggesting either organization has done anything untoward, except perhaps maligning another charity in a media hit job that they could be subject too as well, which brings me back to the point of this piece.

Context matters. Impact matters. And the best defense against such misinformed and poor reporting is to effectively communicate the context of spending decisions and reinforce the impact being made. Unfortunately, in the wake of a negative story anything the subject organization says will appear self-serving. That’s why it’s up to all of us in the sector to respond when these stories occur by providing the context and promoting the impact.

Remember, this can happen to any charity — to your charity. And when it does, the sector — and all good actors in it — needs to respond strongly, informing the public, correcting misperceptions, and protecting the good work we all do.

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