The executive column: a nonprofit no-no

How to avoid this tempting transgression.


How to avoid this tempting transgression

When you’re a communicator in the nonprofit world, you accept the pay, which is generally lower than that of your corporate counterparts. You find creative ways to stretch your limited budget. You wear many hats because you have a small staff. Maybe you are the staff.

As a result, it can be tough to grind out high-quality work, all the time. So sometimes you end up publishing something you just shouldn’t. Let’s call it a nonprofit no-no.

A nonprofit no-no is something that your journalistic instincts tell you to avoid—something you would be ashamed or embarrassed to have in your portfolio of work. Someday you could find yourself in, say, a job interview, begging forgiveness for the indiscretion. “You don’t understand how much pressure I was under,” you’ll plead. “It was so easy to take a shortcut, so I gave in to temptation, just that once.”

Take the executive column (aka the “president’s message,” “view from the top,” or some other bland title). The executive column can rear its ugly head in a member publication, in a conference brochure, on a page of a nonprofit’s Web site—anywhere you can plaster some words (and usually a picture) of some muckety-muck in your organization. Corporate publications often contain similar columns.

Once in a while the executive column is actually worth reading. But most of these columns, well—let’s be honest here. They suck. They’re boring, and nobody wants to write them, let alone read them. Plus the pompous jerk who is supposed to write it is much more impressed with his title than anyone else is. (Yes, I said his title. Because, in my experience, most of these blowhards are men. And I’m a woman.)

A typical column goes something like this:

“As president of the Blah-Blah-Blah Association, I am dedicated to progress/serving our members/whatever lame idea I can steal from the latest ‘business guru.’ Here’s some boring financial information, full of long terms. Plus some acronyms and industry jargon that’s supposed to impress you. Please read this when you can’t sleep. Oh, and here’s a picture of me in my toupee.”

To top it off, the president (or whoever is supposed to write this) either: (a) submits the copy late, (b) sends you some drivel that you have to try to fix, (c) doesn’t send anything and leaves you with a “news hole,” or (d) makes you write it.

So why even have a stinking executive column? Usually it’s because some underling thinks it should be there to appease someone. Maybe it’s a tradition. And everyone is afraid that the CEO won’t be happy if he or she isn’t allowed to spout a few words of wisdom in the column. But here are some ways you can get rid of—or at least liven up—this waste of space.

Fix it. Change the format of the column. You can run it as a Q&A, asking questions that you know your audience would ask, if they could. Try to avoid the softball questions, please. If your CEO runs the Red Cross, for example, how about asking what the hell happened with Hurricane Katrina? Draw your questions from e-mails or phone calls you’ve received. Even better, allow readers to submit questions, then pose these questions to the executive.

Or find out something interesting about the exalted executive—how he paid for college, odd jobs he’s held, who’s influenced his career—and have him write about that. Or ask him to give you an opinion piece about something that matters to him. The people who get the newsletter (or magazine or e-mail update) might actually read the column for a change.

Ditch it. Don’t run the “letter from the president” in your next newsletter or brochure or whatever. See if you get any calls from readers, asking you why the column is missing.

I bet you won’t. If you do, I will shave my head. (No, just kidding. But I will buy you lunch just for trying it. Write me at ncu@watermark-communications.com to cash in.)

But won’t the VIP get pissed if it’s not there? Well, not necessarily. Many of them don’t like writing these columns anyway, which is why they don’t send you their copy on time.

Switch it. Use the space—often the inside front cover, in a print piece—for something your readers care about. If you’ve been getting phone calls, letters or e-mails about a particular item, such as a dues increase, address the topic in the column. A board member or somebody on staff can write it, if you can’t.

You could also use the space as a place for readers to write about how they feel about an issue that’s important to the organization. For example, AARP members might voice their concerns and criticisms about the changes to Medicare.

You can also reprint letters from readers. If you’re a member-based organization, do a profile of a member. If your organization has been around for a while, run something interesting about the group’s history. Or use the space to offer a quiz about the nonprofit.

Now that you have some ideas, go forth and sin no more. And let me buy you lunch.

Kirsten Lambert is principal of Watermark Communications, a Chicago-based communications and marketing consulting firm. She has spent almost 20 years working with numerous corporations and not-for-profit organizations.

What’s on your list of nonprofit no-nos? Tell us at ncu@watermark-communications.com.

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