Starfish-y?

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. 

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13 Responses to “Starfish-y?”

  1. Rosetta Thurman Says:

    Thanks for this post! It immediately reminded me of an organization that contacted my nonprofit once – Heartbeat of America. At first it sounded like a great communications opportunity, but turned out to be a $15,000 chance to be a William Shatner-endorsed informercial to be shown on TV networks seen by baby boomers. They, too, had a war hero/government undercurrent. The problem with these kinds of marketing schemes is that they are rarely consistent with the audience the nonprofit is trying to reach. Most nonprofits need not try to reach every TV viewer in America, but a specific set of likely supporters. In the end, it was not a net value for us – we took a pass and focused our efforts on getting our message out to our targeted audience, not the general public.

  2. Pua Says:

    The part about “interlocking directorates” catches my eye. At a local level, we have a parallel situation:
    a third-party nonprofit public-education-govt (PEG) access TV provider has a Board of Directors chaired by the executive director of the local Red Cross. To fill the sparse programming schedule for the G channel,the PEG provider puts on programs about the Red Cross. Is this conflict of interest? Or nonprofits supporting each other in a hostile world?
    –pua

  3. Phil Says:

    One of the persons behind the network is Curt Bassett, of Princeton Capital. Used to be head of Merrill’s family office group. When I heard him present the concept it was at The Advisors in Philanthropy Conference last week in Chicago. The idea was that financial advisors would either pay a certain sum, $7,000, I believe for those attending the conference, and $10,000 for others, to have an interview with a donor client aired. The money could be given by the advisor or raised by the advisor. Thus, the client donor is served, the advisor is served with PR and presumably the cause might be served as well.

    Knowing the circles in which Curt moves, I would expect that early users would be more conservative than not, but my impression is that subject to certain guidelines mainstream and progressive causes and donors would be welcome.

    The founding group for Starfish is, I believe in Salt Lake. For religious and personal reasons, they may have some causes they consider out of bounds. How they will draw that line may be difficult for them. I sat a few months back in a meeting of the founders as they discussed the future of the network. They struck me as conscientious and duly concerned about balancing their own values and those of the nonprofits who might take another side.

    Overall, I think the experiment sounds promising. Not all idealism driven, but driven by a balance of shrewd business sense and a commitment to promoting giving.

    Note too, that giving is now a hot topic with Main St Advisors and their entrepreneurial clients. Much of this is tax driven and much driven by family (socially conservative) values. Rather than deplore it or find its limitations, I am inclined to applaud anyone who gives, tithes, leaves a legacy to their community or church, even if their values are not mine. Such differences make for a healthy pluralistic and often contentious democracy.

  4. Albert Ruesga Says:

    I’m with Phil on this one. I too met the founders and got the impression they were sincerely committed to lifting up the work being done by community-based organizations in low-income communities. I didn’t think to ask them about the range of advocacy organizations they’d consider featuring.

    They have no production capacity yet, so initially they’ll depend on materials provided by nonprofits.

    I’m inclined to take them at their word and celebrate the great good they propose to do.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    The concept Phil and Albert heard about at their conference is quite different from the one being presented on the Starfish Websites, so I’m particularly grateful to them for the input. If in fact Starfish is going to be some sort of video dating service for donors and charities (with each submitting videos for the other one’s viewing), that’s an interesting idea. And certainly anyone who uses the Internet as a broadcast facility, and breaks the oligopoly of the big media companies, has my best wishes. Still I think broadcasting government-produced materials on a channel ostensibly devoted to the work of the third sector is troubling.

  6. Curt Bassett Says:

    Thanks Phil and Albert for your clarifications and support and thank you Nonprofiteer for your interest in Starfish.

    My company Princeton Social Capital is a consultant to Starfish and so I can speak for them somewhat in this blog, but not officially, so they may choose to correct me.

    I’m a little puzzled why Starfish is so controversial on this blog, but I can see that there are some misconceptions so let me clarify: Starfish isn’t out to make money off of nonprofits, they themselves are a nonprofit that is trying to help other nonprofits by offering them a national platform where they can tell their story to a broader audience than local access channels. They are not comprised of interlocking directorships with any organization, but several different people and groups are represented as founders or as advisory board members. Some of them were involved in the founding of CMN, but are not affiliated with them now and most have not been affiliated for some time. Others include people like Ron Maines, founder of the History Channel; Jeff Martin, Director of Media Relations at the Council on Foundations; Bruce Trachtenberg, Exec Dir of the Communications Network http://www.comnetwork.org; Dale Murphy, retired star of the Atlanta Braves; and many other celebrities. All of these are from various different geographic regions, political and religious affiliations.

    All are contributing time where they can, and all will have a significant voice in Starfish’s programming content. Starfish’s programming objective, as was stated, is to provide a platform for the telling of the inspiring stories of nonprofits, foundations, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and volunteers to inspire and uplift the nation–not government agencies like Homeland Security. They have no political or religious agendas and will be very careful, with the assistance of our advisory board, to AVOID airing content that does–though they may air programs about humanitarian services from religious nonprofits. It is true that I walk in some conservative circles, but it is also true that I walk in just as many liberal circles and that my career in philanthropy as head of Foundations and Strategic Philanthropy at Merrill Lynch has focused on both. Though my personal agendas aren’t relevant here because I don’t determine the programming.

    It is also true that Focus on the Family and Homeland Services were originally included on a “sample” program lineup, but they were removed about 2 weeks BEFORE your blog when it was determined that either the organization or the content was not the right fit. What is the right fit? This is determined by many factors, not just whether a program meets the “nonpolitical/nonreligious” test, but also whether it is “compelling TV.” This means that some content will also be turned down because it may not be well enough produced, or Starfish may already have a lot of that kind of content, or they may not be able to find a sponsor for that program, etc.

    Also I hope you will be patient if Starfish’s website isn’t completely up to date. Like any startup nonprofit, they are underfunded and under-resourced and on the run. While they are trying to keep a television channel on the air, they are also gathering funding, finding volunteers who are willing to work for free and talented employees who are willing to work for low wages, recruiting board members and partners, seeking more compelling existing programming and ideas for new programs, putting together licensing agreements, getting rights to intellectual property, putting together better studio and broadcasting capabilities, writing music and producing interstitials and, oh yes, putting together a website and marketing materials. You sound like you are experienced with nonprofits so I’m sure you will be patient with them. They promise to have a world-class website put together for you by end of June.

    Frankly, I’m amazed they’ve done as well as they have. They were surprised by Dish in early December last year when Dish granted their application for a channel on their first try(usually it takes at least a couple of attempts) and then told that they had 4 months to pull together a television network and be on the air. I am not a TV pro (my expertise is in philanthropy) and looking at your background (Nonprofiteer) I see that you aren’t either, but having observed it first hand, I tell you that the putting together of this network in such a short period of time has been nothing short of a miracle. I invite you to come to their studio and they’ll be happy to roll out the red carpet and show you what I mean.

    As for the revenue model, because Starfish is a nonprofit, they are not in this to make money–just sustainability. They are currently funded by the generous support of philanthropists, but are seeking more funding from other philanthropists, foundations, corporations, and other sponsors like financial advisors who would want to highlight the philanthropy of their clients or people in their community. Starfish’s mission is not to take advantage of nonprofits as you seem to imply, but to help them by giving them a platform to tell their story to a broader audience. Why would you think they are doing something unseemly by offering to do this at no cost to the charities and then helping them to find sponsors? If you have a better revenue model for keeping this wonderful tool for nonprofits on the air, they would love to hear it.

  7. Curt Bassett Says:

    Nonprofiteer, I just followed the links you provided for the Starfish Network and found that you were looking at a beta site that I thought had been taken down long ago. I will make sure it is taken down ASAP. The actual site that we have been using for some time is at http://www.starfishtv.org. Sorry for the confusion.

  8. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I appreciate Mr. Bassett’s clarifications (though I read both Starfish sites, not just the one that now turns out to be obsolete). Certainly it’s a relief that the channel doesn’t intend to broadcast government propaganda. I think what’s controversial, though, is the very thing he identifies: a revenue model that doesn’t seem to make any sense, even for mere sustainability. If your nonprofit can’t operate without free labor–especially free labor provided by other nonprofits, who have their own sustenance to consider–then it’s not a functioning enterprise. And if a broadcast outlet can’t afford to provide its own programming, it will be at chronic risk of taking whatever programming is free–which comes overwhelmingly from the U.S. government. We already have the Voice of America for that.

    There’s also the question Ms. Thurman raises about how appropriate a broad-spectrum media approach is for the overwhelming majority of charities whose appeal is narrow.

    But Ms. Ford puts it best: it’s an open question whether, say, offering programming to one nonprofit with which you’re affiliated from another nonprofit with which you’re affiliated constitutes a conflict of interest or just nonprofits supporting each other in a hostile world.

    I’d be interested in seeing a schedule from Starfish now that the Department of Homeland Security and Focus on the Family have been removed.

  9. Curt Bassett Says:

    Starfish is already receiving hundreds of videos from nonprofits all over the country, both large AND small, that were created by those nonprofits to tell their stories (usually shown at their fundraising dinners, etc.). Many of these videos are very compelling, which you can see by tuning into http://www.starfish.vdc.com. Because Starfish is still working through programming priorities and formats, they haven’t yet produced a program schedule but will do so soon and I’ll make sure you get a copy of it.

    It is unfortunate that you feel they are trying to build a channel on the backs of the “free labor” provided by nonprofits. To the contrary, nonprofits of all sizes were already creating this content anyway and Starfish is just providing them a way to share that message with a broader audience–AND Starfish is finding the sponsors (corporations, foundations, philanthropists) who will pay for the TV platform so that the charity can continue to air their programs at no cost to themselves.

    Why does the charity want to do this? Because getting their message out helps them attract more support for their programs (financial support, volunteers, ideas for better programs, users of their services).

    Why would a local charity care about getting their story out to the nation? Many local charities receive support from outside their local regions, or they may want to expand their organization nationally, or national exposure might bring them more credibility than a local access channel might provide, or they may simply be interested in sharing their model to inspire others to follow their lead.

    And local charities have as much appeal to Starfish (and many of their sponsors) as do national charities since what often is important to our viewers is that they are inspired by the selflessness and great model for change exhibited by some charities, whether or not the charities are in the viewers’ geographic region.

    Eventually, Starfish will also help charities create films and when they do, they will also help them find sponsors to cover the cost of production.

    Thank you again for being a faithful watchdog for charities. I applaud your efforts in this regard and hope this clears up any misconceptions about Starfish.

  10. phil Says:

    The good thing about blogging is that it drives issues into the open. I am pleased that Nonprofiteer raised the hard issues. And I am pleased that Curt has stayed with the conversation, providing not just information, but clarification.

    Latent in this conversation might be the whole issue of “purity and danger.” Is it dangerous and impure to mix nonprofit and forprofit methods and models?

    In my experience, Curt Bassett is a thought leader and action leader in creating fertile hybrids of nonprofit ideals and forprofit methods. Starfish is one example. Princeton Social Capital is another. Merrill’s work in philanthorpy is another, as was Renaissance’s, the organization that introduced many in financial services to philanthropic planning.

    Doing this work, across the sectors, or among silos in the sectors, is challenging. There are ways to do it wrong, and be greedy or unethical or exploitative. Some will indeed take the low road.

    The best defense of the public interest is this kind of open conversation, in which the details and intentions and attitudes all come to the surface and are discussed.

    This particular venture is a nonprofit, but clearly it was designed by a good business person with an eye to sustainability as well as to social effect. Starfish strikes me as an effort to amplify positive activity across the sectors by channelig both nonprofit actors (nonprofits and donors) and forprofit actors (financial services people who work with donors and nonprofits) through a nonprofit structure.

    I would guess the venture will be “good for business,” for advisors who encourage donors to participate, and good for society by honoring donors and the causes they support.

    I also assume that Curt is a creative guy, and as the venture succeeds he will find ways to build on it. I would not be surprised someday to find that Starfish has profit-making spinoffs, alliances, strategic partners and the like. If someone was able to show that Curt made money from some of these allied ventures, it would not suprise or upset me necessarily. It would all depend on how it was done, and why, and how well it was set up to be transparent and responsive to the public as well as the private interest.

    Philanthropy in the age of the social entrepreneur will never be the same again. Nor perhaps will business be. Entrepreneurs like Curt are changing the landscape. Good to see him being so willing to engage in public conversation. I am learning lots from him, and wish I had his gift for the businesslike approach to giving. On the other hand, if I mastered the art of the philanthropic deal, I might have to give up moralizing, my natural gift.

  11. Curt Bassett Says:

    Thanks Phil. You said this very eloquently and you know that I have high respect for your practice at New York Life and how you too balance your philanthropic motives with the profit motives that are found when for-profits serve nonprofits.

    However, I worry that your kind remarks about my business acumen may cause some to wonder whether the founders of Starfish are truly motivated by philanthropy. If this is the case, I invite them to get Starfish’s 990 and they will quickly see that no one with a profit motive would work for Starfish since all those involved with the organization, including my company as a consultant, operate either at below market rates or are volunteer. Starfish is all about helping charities tell their stories in order to inspire individuals and organizations to increase their philanthropic intent. But that said, they hope you are right about my business acumen as they are counting on that to help them not only increase sustainability but also grow so that they can help more charities get their messages out.

  12. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Gentlemen, Thanks to you both for your thoughtful comments. To me the issue is not whether it’s “dangerous or impure to mix nonprofit or for profit methods and models,” as Phil has it–it’s whether it’s efficient to mix those models, when efficiency means “providing the maximum charitable services for the minimum dollar.” Any profit must by definition be money that’s not being used for the charity’s purposes. If the fact of profitability is sufficient to increase the volume of revenue by some huge increment, then both parties (charity and for-profit investor) may end up ahead; but that remains to be proved with every agency and its individual financial model.

    Likewise, as I ask in my “Foundation Friday: Building vs. Buying” post, what exactly do we mean when we say a nonprofit is “sustainable”? That it’s identified a consistent source of unrelated business income? That it’s diversified its fundraising base so that it will never be in danger of running out of donors? And once that end-game is defined, how much growth capital is enough, or too much, to reach it?

    This is an ongoing debate and I’m grateful for your continued sophisticated and challenging participation in it.

  13. Cruninov Says:

    Class site.
    Your site has very much liked me.
    Different work!!!

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