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What the Committee of Seventy should teach other nonprofits about publishing

The Committee of Seventy is a 110-year-old local good government activist group known best in Philadelphia for its oversight of city elections. With the retirement of their popular newsman-turned-leader, the nonpartisan nonprofit is seeking a new Executive Director. This is also a unique opportunity for the group to update how it can best serve its mission to combat corruption. It has a clear alignment with public affairs journalism — something other mission groups should learn from.

For my undergraduate academic year 2004-2005, I was a policy intern at Seventy, spanning outgoing director Zack Stalberg and his predecessor Fred Voigt, whom I also interviewed for a college thesis project. From then through to my Election Day volunteering, I’ve long been inspired by their work.

But like Stalberg was meant to do when he replaced Voigt, Seventy is again in need of an updated look at how it can best accomplish their goals. If I were to launch an organization with the goals Seventy has today, in an era with newfound opportunities to build civic-orientated coalitions, web publishing for audience building would certainly be part of the strategy.

I have felt that a modern conception of public affairs journalism is linked deeply to the Committee of Seventy’s mission for years. I met with various Seventy staffers in 2010 and 2011. I’ve always viewed them as an obvious partner in any collaborative journalism efforts, writing in 2010, in 2011, in 2013 and, for kicks, earlier this year.

It has many of the tools it needs — a content-driven policy team, a good government mission and a widely cherished brand locally, in addition to a beautiful website from South Philly design agency P’unk Ave, which is ready for the kind of mixture of stock and flow editorial work that would grow its direct influence.

For too long, Seventy’s outreach strategy was driven by getting a quote in a local newspaper. Today it needs to develop a direct relationship with its donors, volunteers and prospective readership. That’s something very nearly any mission-minded organization can learn from.

I shared this perspective with Stalberg and others from Seventy but there was perhaps some skepticism. So I was excited to tell this to a colleague of mine who is on the search committee charged with replacing Stalberg, and I wanted to expound some here.

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WHY: To maintain and grow the impact on its mission, Seventy needs to adapt its work to a new era and better align itself with a new coalition of groups with similar goals from varied industries.

WHO: Seventy should hire a leader passionate about Philadelphia, transparent and efficient government and skilled in modern #opengov efforts, including public affairs journalism, open data utility and highly collaborative network building.

WHAT: Seventy should be focused on growing the single largest network of civic minded Philadelphians. Its new CEO needs to understand how and why Seventy relates to news startup efforts like Brother.ly and Philadelphia Citizen; a network of independent media; legacy news media, in addition to the varied nonprofit and institutional groups that fit as partners — the Fels Institute, the City Controller’s office, the Inspector General and the like. It likely includes more approachable content creation and an understanding of the difference between its donors, volunteers and readers/supporters.

WHERE: Like other cluttered groups, this mission focus needs a leader. Seventy has to find a way to make its network stronger and what its anchors are beyond Election Day volunteering (though that is a strong start).

HOW: That’s another post altogether.

Of course, Seventy also has obstacles: its organizational and staffing roots are not structured to consistently drive narratives, just look at its board, comprised of more lawyers than [insert gratuitous attorney joke.]

Still its strengths are incredibly tied to the mission of public affairs journalism. That’s something that nonprofits and groups around the world can understand — and I hope will be able to learn from Seventy’s future work.

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