Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

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The case for adjectives

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“Simplify,” one of my undergrad professors used to say. “Stop sprinkling your writing with modifiers that mean nothing. If your nouns need adjectives and your verbs need adverbs, they’re not strong enough. Don’t modify. just use stronger ones.”

So I did. Years later, I’m still leery of adverbs, though I’ve learned some adjectives pull their own weight. When writing about nonprofits, however, modifiers are more than welcome.

Our sector is a vast and diverse one. “Nonprofit” embraces everything from massive institutions with thousands of employees to tiny agencies run by one part-time volunteer. And in between, there are countless variations. So when news stories use “nonprofits” to refer to a specific subset of nonprofits, it’s often both inaccurate and–depending on the topic–damaging to the sector’s reputation.

Take, for example, one of the major stories in nonprofit news this week. The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its survey on nonprofit executive compensation (covering 2008) and found, among other things, that CEOs at the largest nonprofits received salary increases during the recession.

And several news outlets that picked up this story said just that:

Some, on the other hand, had accurate stories but used headlines that did not make the crucial distinction between nonprofits whose executives received raises and nonprofits that make up the majority of the sector and that remainappropriately cost-conscious:

(The Chronicle’s own headline on its Managing blog doesn’t mention salary increases, instead focusing on the finding’s flip side: Nearly 30% of Nonprofit Leaders Took a Pay Cut This Year; Pay in 2008 Grew Quickly.)

Whatever journalistic merits of the headlines in the second set, the  fact remains that they leave out a crucial adjective: large. As in, “CEO salaries at large nonprofits up in 2008,” etc.

When donors, volunteers, and other supporters read the second set of headlines, how does it looks for their investments in nonprofit work? As the Chronicle attests in its blog post about the study, “given the severity of the downturn, it is surprising that two-thirds of the organizations are not reducing pay for their top executive.” I hope readers don’t just skim news headlines. Fortunately, donors and other nonprofit supporters are more likely to read at least the first paragraph in these articles, and to discover there that the headline (and the study’s main finding) doesn’t apply to all nonprofits. But it’s those readers unconnected to nonprofits, and least likely to read beyond the headline, that we need to be mindful of. They get their perceptions of nonprofits from headlines like these. And that’s unnerving.

Granted, it’s more unnerving when large nonprofits give their executives raises during a recession. But that’s for another post.

What do you think? Are headlines’ sweeping generalizations about nonprofits denting the sector’s reputation? Or are they effective teasers that draw in readers?

Written by eclawson

October 7, 2009 at 5:09 PM