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‘Uncharitable’ screening prompts discussion of nonprofits in Southwest Washington, Oregon

Leaders in film, panel talk about challenges many in industry face

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 22, 2024, 6:07am

It is time to change our thinking when it comes to philanthropy, leaders across the nonprofit sector say.

That was the topic of discussion Monday following an afternoon screening of the documentary “Uncharitable,” a film that explores the constraints of nonprofits and urges communities to reconsider their biases toward the charitable sector.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals hosted the viewing at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. A panel of leaders from Southwest Washington and Oregon then discussed their visions on how to advance nonprofit impact in the region.

Dashiell Elliot, CEO of Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, talked about her five-year vision for the organization, which encourages philanthropic leaders to increase their capacity and education through convening, collaboration and connection.

“It really is about keeping everyone informed, engaged and connected and the various ways we can do that is how we can be most successful in our sector,” Elliot said. “Also, expanding what our network looks like and to build up leaders to have access to jobs and philanthropy so we can see more fresh faces in the field.”

Shifting the narrative

The documentary, based on the book of the same name by humanitarian activist Dan Pallotta, follows the story of how three successful charity campaigns were destroyed by watchdog charity organizations and unfair media reports.

Pallotta’s company, Pallotta TeamWorks, once ran multiday fundraiser events, such as the AIDS Ride and the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. But in 2002, the company dissolved after being sued by some groups that hired it to run fundraising events. They complained the company took too big a cut of the donations raised, according to the Associated Press.

Pallotta, and other national philanthropists in the film, discussed the unfair narrative surrounding nonprofits, specifically when it comes to expenses that are essential to an organization’s operation, but not directly connected to programs, also known as “overhead.”

“We have to go beg for every dollar we get, while trying to address things like sexual violence, poverty, racism and sexism,” Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YMCA Metropolitan Chicago, said in the film. “We’re still in fact businesses. We still have the same operating costs, but we’re competing with McDonald’s, Apple and Coca-Cola for the same customers.”

Leaders in the film also discussed the challenges many nonprofits face, such as restrictive funding, criticism for paying leaders a living wage, and being seen as wasteful if money is spent on fundraising and outreach operations to increase awareness.

Panel leaders concurred, reinforcing the film’s message about the way prejudices have negatively impacted the charitable sector.

One panel member said he wants to see coordination between government agencies and nonprofits to serve more individuals in the region and nationwide.

“We need to see a better coordinator between the nonprofit sector and government,” said Jim White, executive director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. “I think we need to talk about what we can unleash in government funding to move into the charitable sector with greater rapidity.”

Nonprofit leaders should be able to dream big, be paid competitive wages and take creative risks in the same way for-profit businesses can, panel members and participants in the film said.

“Part of our vision is how we work to solve problems in the real world. What does exponential change look like in a coordinated way? In a way that is sustainable?” said Agnes Zach, moderator and CEO of Nonprofit Professionals Now. “We’re hoping that from this, one of the calls to action you might all have, is to go back to your organizations and say, ‘We need to have another conversation. We need to actually take action.’”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.