– Why most end up lining the bottom of bird cages.
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I have belonged to a plethora of nonprofit organizations over the years, be it related to Information Technology, management, homeowner associations, sports clubs, political groups, fraternal organizations, school clubs, etc. Most, if not all issue a newsletter either monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly. Due to rising printing and postal prices, most have gone to an electronic format, be it on the web or in PDF format, which has dramatically cut costs. Regardless, they all pretty much say the same thing.

With rare exception, most newsletters try to put a positive spin on how the club or association is doing. They are typically a public relations piece with the intent of trying to encourage the membership to remain active and attend meetings. As I tend to be intimate with the organizations I participate in, I realize such newsletters offer more facade than substance. They may say everything is great, but the reality is things couldn’t be much worse. Not surprising, participation in nonprofit groups is waning, probably due to the politics involved and changing values. Instead of making meetings meaningful (fun and interesting), most nonprofits have fallen into a rut and do not know how to get out of it.

So, why do nonprofits only report positive trends? They fear their membership would abandon them if they knew what was actually going on. Somehow the quote by Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” comes to mind, “You can’t handle the truth!” This may be so, but I would like to believe the membership would rally behind a cause if they truly believe in the institution and knew what was really going on.

Knowing the calendar of events and what club awards were presented is one thing, knowing the condition of the club is something entirely different. There is an old expression derived from psychology which states, “You cannot treat a patient if he doesn’t know he is sick.” Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see clubs add to the newsletter financial statements, membership totals, or attendance records, along with commentary by the chief executive? We would at least grasp what was going on and come to the aid of the institution.

In every organization I have been involved with, I have found it important the senior officer report on the condition of the organization at least once a year. This is similar in intent to the President’s State of the Union address. Here, the intention is to come clean with the members by discussing such things as: Membership, Facilities, Participation, Finances, Programs, Sickness and distress, Harmony, Relations with similar groups, Charitable activities, and how well we met our Objectives.

Only by disclosing such items in the newsletter would the members comprehend why a dues increase is being proposed, an assessment, or change in policy.

Because most newsletter do not include such items is why I do not take newsletters seriously; they only tell us what they want us to hear. It also explains why most end up lining the bottom of bird cages.

The best surprise is no surprise.

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant who writes commentaries about the times we live in be it in the corporate world, the Masonic world, or our personal lives. His writings are well known on the Internet and are humorous, educational, and at times controversial. You won’t always agree with him, but Tim will definitely get you thinking.

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  1. I believe that you are certainly correct about a concern for continued participation, should the news be less that light and positive. No doubt that is definitely on the minds of the responsible party(s) and may be the reasoning behind a ‘good news’ editorial philosophy. However, I can’t help but suggest that there are a couple of other reasons for what is, essentially, a decision to make newsletters virtually useless (and you’re right: they tend to be just that), from the POV of an organization’s most active members.

    It is my experience, that the least involved members of an institution tend to be some of the most critical. This is even true, in a relative sense, among those at the highest levels of participation (i.e. officers & managers), who tend to see less wrong within the group than only slightly less involved rank-and-file. Those who have chosen to avail themselves of the least information (annual meeting/card-carriers in a Lodge; C&E’s in a church…) just seem to feel the greatest obligation to criticize people, programs, and policies. Perhaps their effort is to try to convince both themselves and others of their deep commitment to the group. That said, maybe the philosophy of a newsletter then becomes not to give the uninformed critics that ‘little knowledge’ (real problems could never be deeply explained or analysed in such a format anyway) that can be a ‘dangerous thing’ to the harmony (albeit superficial) of the group.

    The other factor that comes to mind (and, perhaps, less an issue as newsletters increasingly become digital publications) is the potential for negative information to come to the attention of those not actually members of the organization. A commitment to ‘telling the truth and letting the chips fall’ in a newsletter could quite easily become a public airing of the group’s dirty laundry: doubly damaging for subsequent dissemination of incomplete information among those with neither vested interest nor power to act on the issues raised.

    In the groups in which I am most involved, the newsletter is all but useless to me. Chances are overwhelming that I have already logged dates, times, and places in my planner, long before they appear in print. Whatever information might also appear is again, by it’s cursory nature, infrequently of much real value. These things are, as you imply, produced for the benefit of those with the least interest and information and, I argue, are designed to fulfill a physician’s prime directive: first, do no harm! Why do them at all? Again, an institutional answer: It’s expected and we’ve always done it.

  2. Bro. Bill –

    In terms of Lodge newsletters specifically, aside from the calendar, there is usually nothing of substance in there. It is nothing but a p.r. piece. None are willing to describe diminishing membership, funds or attendance.

    All the Best,

  3. On the standing of those three issues alone, vis-a-vis the future of the Craft, newsletters might then be said to be even ‘less than worthless,’ and to actually represent an active threat, insofar as they mislead the uninformed and encourage continuing passivity. A return to the Lodge’s roots and the institution’s raison d’etre seems the obvious answer: a radical approach…but then ‘radical,’ after all means ‘root!’

    W∴B∴ Andrew Hammer’s “Observing the Craft” is still the best treatment of that subject that I have seen. He pulls no punches and makes no apologies for where we get it wrong.

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