PEN America Joins the Political Fray — and Finds New Audiences
This spring, PEN America, long considered a genteel citadel of the literary elite, opened a new front in the battle for free expression: the Oval Office.
In a report that condemned President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, the organization declared that “Trump’s lies cheapen and degrade our politics and the ideals that undergird our nation.”
The harsh words reflect a new day at the 95-year-old nonprofit, and a new mind-set. Faced with a shrinking budget and stagnant membership, it has moved aggressively since 2013 to embrace its role as a defender of free expression. Such work, the organization hoped, would earn the favor of new constituencies becoming a force in the literary world: younger generations that were more diverse, more tech-savvy, and, most important, more politically engaged than traditional PEN supporters. At the same time, it’s created new programs and revamped its warhorses.
The pivot has apparently paid off. PEN America’s revenue has more than doubled since 2012, to roughly $6.1 million. Membership has jumped from about 3,400 five years ago to upward of 4,700.
The group finds fertile territory for growth in the current political climate, says Suzanne Nossel, its executive director: “I think our work is just more salient.”
One of the organization’s key early moves was hiring Ms. Nossel, a human-rights activist and former head of Amnesty International USA. Her predecessor, Steven Isenberg, came from a background more typical for PEN, having worked in journalism and academe.
Among Ms. Nossel’s first orders of business was to step up advocacy, creating in-depth reports on hot-button issues related to free expression. In October, PEN America released a study of free speech on college campuses, aiming to balance universities’ need to be inclusive with First Amendment protections.
It has also waded into controversies in real time — for instance, decrying the jailing of journalists covering the Ferguson, Mo., protests after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer.
And then came President Trump.
At the nonprofit’s first-ever board retreat, days after the election, it formulated a response to the incoming administration and its leader, who had attacked reporters and press freedoms during the campaign. PEN America has since launched a campaign called #LouderTogether, which includes a daily email alert pointing to new threats to free expression. The alert now has 8,000 daily and 120,000 weekly subscribers.
In March, the organization turned its annual governance meeting — “traditionally a sleepy affair here at the office,” Ms. Nossel says — into a town-hall meeting at which PEN members considered the role of the writer in Trump-era America. In April, it produced a report on the president’s first 100 days in office that was not-so-subtly titled “Trump the Truth.”
“ ‘Thought leadership’ is such a cliché,” Ms. Nossel says, “but we’re really trying to bring new thinking to areas within our mission.”
PEN has also created programming to help bring in new backers. One project, “The M Word,” funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, aims to amplify the voices of Muslim Americans. The first of several events in the series featured comedians.
Since 2015, PEN has co-sponsored an annual Lit Crawl NYC, with readings at some of Lower Manhattan’s hippest shops and bars, drawing young and diverse crowds.
Amping Up Events
Some changes at PEN America aim to amp up the nonprofit’s traditional events, including its annual Literary Gala, which the veteran journalist and author Gay Talese, a PEN supporter, once described to The New York Times as “a literary tea party that had an annual dinner attended by about 38 reclusive people.”
To jazz up this fusty affair, PEN began to spotlight writers and artists who are also household names. Last year’s event honored Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; this year’s featured Meryl Streep honoring the composer Stephen Sondheim. The April gala raised more than $2 million, double the event’s take in 2013.
Through more than 100 free and low-cost events per year, PEN has beckoned to supporters who work outside the literary world, hoping to tap their areas of interest. Recent gatherings have focused on the refugee crisis, Russia’s view of the American election, cartooning, and poetry. Next up: far-flung events the New York-based nonprofit will organize with members around the country to boost interest in its mission.
The organization has learned that people join its cause for any number of reasons. Some new supporters, Ms. Nossel says, care about specific issues, like campus speech. And, she adds, “some people just love writers.”
MAKEOVER TIPS: SPEAK UP, LISTEN WELL
- Embrace the role of “thought leader.” Speak out on issues related to the charity’s mission.
- Seek feedback. Periodic surveys of supporters can help guide changes.
- Widen the net to find new supporters. PEN America realized literature lovers who did not work in the literary world might want to join.
- Spiff up old programs. Tweak a gala or festival for today’s tastes.