#VIDEO: Ken Sterns’s Book Offers Tough Love To Nonprofit Economy

Ken Sterns, former CEO of NPR, challenges the nonprofit sector
Ken Sterns, former CEO of NPR, challenges the nonprofit sector

Ken Sterns has served as CEO of National Public Radio, arguably one of the best-known nonprofits in the country. He supports The American Red Cross, and has served on the boards of a number of charities. So when his book, And Charity for All argues that the nonprofit sector is a huge part of the American economy, yet the least productive sector as well, people listen. And they should.

Mr. Sterns was recently interviewed at The Huffington Post, as he joined a roundtable (‘multiscreen’) discussion that included Alexander Berger at GiveWell; Dr. John Brothers, founder of Quidoo Consulting; and Rigo Sabarino, President and CEO of St. Barnabas Senior Services. The interview begins with him throwing down the gauntlet, wondering if the nonprofit community is even worth preserving.

The talking point for Ken Sterns is that nonprofits are strikingly unaccountable. Even as they do good work (and he defends his firebombing by pointing out that most really do good work), they measure themselves by whatever standards they feel are pertinent at that moment. And mostly those standards are shifted to accommodate whatever story the nonprofit wants to tell post facto. Please watch and consider:

Ok, this blogger finds the interviewing ‘style’ of Abby Huntsman stunningly irritating: she interrupts without challenging, and seems really proud of herself for “having read parts of it.” But such is likely the wave of the news/media future.

When Ken Sterns paints the picture of the nonprofit/charity landscape though, the picture is not pretty: the IRS will offer nonprofit status to anyone who asks, donors want to feel a connection to the organization even if that organization has no real impact on the problem it is trying to solve, nonprofits are trapped between being merely reactionary (á la The Red Cross) or working as for-profit chasers of money who are nonprofits on a tax-form check box only.

His arguments have felt some pushback (and he responds to that pushback later in the video), but the top nonprofits in the naiton get battered in his analysis. Notice also his prescriptions to help the many (usually smaller/local) nonprofits that are doing real good. Have you and your colleagues considered some of his ideas for long-term success? We all should.