My colleague at Gift Hub mentioned the Starfish Network, a broadcast outlet scheduled for imminent launch on DISH Network and currently available on-line at VDC.com, devoted entirely to content about nonprofits. With her compulsive need to practice equine dentistry, the Nonprofiteer decided to investigate, sending the link to a public-access maven friend of hers, who replied,
The most recently updated page on that site is from March 2006, so I guess they don’t put their energy into webmastery . . . . Haven’t found them listed among the channel offerings for Dish satellite, Comcast or Cablevision in our region [East Coast]. Maybe their offerings are more available in the western half of the country.
And it requires the NFPs to come up with $$$ or energy to put a program together, like local public access channels. Interesting idea to bring that to a national level. Will keep my eye on it. Do you know anyone who makes use of their services?
No, actually; and if you read both Starfish sites it’s possible to ascertain that one of their "charity partners," the Children’s Miracle Network, is an agency formerly run by one of Starfish’s founders. There’s nothing wrong with interlocking directorates among nonprofits, necessarily, but it’s a bit misleading to suggest that the Miracle Network independently endorsed the concept, or the group. To be fair, though, the national Make-A-Wish Foundation and Muscular Dystrophy Association are also partners.
Some of the programming Starfish promises also gives one pause. There’s a series from Focus on the Family, the anti-choice and anti-gay group run by James Dobson; stories of military heroes of unknown provenance; and material designed to promote the work of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Our public-access maven notes,
If I had enough time, it’d be sorta fun to test them by proposing a mini-series for Planned Parenthood or NARAL or Love Makes a Family…
while the Nonprofiteer wonders whether we’ll be informed that we’re watching government-produced material (or corporate infomercials about activities deemed charitable) or only find out by accident (if at all) that it’s propaganda. An old saw comes to mind: consider the source.
Finally, and more generally: who’s serving who in this system? Starfish provides the medium; charities provide not just the message but the programming, and the sponsors. Taking local public-access to a national scale is an intriguing idea, but is there just a bit of Tom Sawyer’s fence-painting here? "Such a deal: we’ll allow you to provide us with content, and while you’re at it we’ll also allow you to provide us with connections to businesses who want to pay us to show it!"
This may actually be the best way for charities to get their message out, and the fact that rich charities will be able to take more advantage of it than poor charities doesn’t destroy its value. But as a professional producer (and seller) of content, the Nonprofiteer is understandably a little squeamish about schemes for luring amateurs into doing the producing, and giving it away.
Old saw #2: let the buyer (charity, philanthropy) beware.