Decoding the Code . . . editor notes issue #56

Every field has its coded messages: When the bank says it's shortened its hours "for your convenience" they really mean "for our bottom line." By the way, we aren't defending these; in fact, we find them annoying to maddeningly offensive. Here is a Rosetta Stone for some of the culprits in the nonprofit sector:

  • Charismatic means . . . bad manager. Example: "We have a charismatic executive director."
  • As you know means . . . "as you don't know." "As you know from our grant report . . ."
  • Articulate means . . . well-educated, polite African American: "He's very, you know, articulate."
  • Bright means . . . young and well-educated. "Will you do an informational interview with my cousin? She's very bright."
  • Seasoned means . . . old. "Will you do an informational interview with my cousin. She's quite seasoned."
  • Extend the deadline . . . no one is signing up: "We've extended the deadline to be a sponsor for our fall fundraiser!"
  • Good reputation . . . they don't have money troubles: "I want to work for a nonprofit with a good reputation."
  • Strategic (from a foundation) . . . less responsive to nonprofits: "Our ten-month planning process has resulted in a decision that our grantmaking will be more strategic."
  • Tough decision means . . . unpopular decision: "He just can't make the tough decisions."
  • We'll start promptly at 9 means . . "We'll start around 9:15."

This issue we have two articles especially for boards: a Board-Staff Agreement for Financial Accountability, and how to Manage Board Email. And just in time for the CFC campaigns, an article on easy CFC fundraising. Plus a few guide dog puppies for your desktop.

And congratulations to us: Rick Cohen and Blue Avocado have just won a Min Online Editorial & Design Awards in the category of Editorial & Design for our articles on the Decline & Fall of the Vanguard Foundation! It's great to see Rick's terrific investigative reporting recognized. --Jan Masaoka

Comments (21)

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I just have not heard it used this way but I am not sure why Articulate should reference African Americans. I find that offensive.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Yes, it is offensive. For more on the subject, here's an article

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/04/weekinreview/04clemetson.html

    As noted in this article, many non-African Americans don't actually realize that they're using "articulate" as a kind of code word. I hope that drawing attention to this will make everyone more conscious.

    It would be nice if we could re-claim some of these words (like having charismatic really mean compelling and persuasive) but it's another lost cause, like wishing the words "lite" and "nite" were illegal. :) Jan

     

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    It IS offensive. It was used by Joe Biden to describe what's-his-name during the 2008 campaign.

    Oct 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I agree, that one rubbed me the wrong way, too. And surprised me, coming from this source.

    Oct 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Maybe I'm taking this too seriously, but I don't find it accurate, nor funny.
    While I have heard these terms used in the ways you've described, I've also heard them used sincerely. If the intention is to raise our awareness about how we use language, kudos, and maybe make that a bit more clear? To me this commentary came across as very cynical, looking for problems rather than solutions.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Articulate means . . . well-educated, polite African American: "He's very, you know, articulate."
    Did you just say that? No, articulate means you have a command of the English Language. You speak with distinction. Even in it's last definition it does not refer to someone's race and how they are educated.

    Remove my email address from your list. I certainly don't want to be associated nor do I have time for such stupidity.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Ann, thank you for this message, and I will unsubscribe you from the mailing list. By including the highly offensive use of "articulate" as a reference to African Americans, I meant to criticize it and draw attention to how awful it is. Obviously I failed at making that point clearly enough. Thank you for your feedback. Jan

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I hate to horn in here, but I pray, Ann, that you read the whole piece in the style it was written--some good old-fashioned commentary. I love me some sports, and this 'articulate' word is used ALL the time in this offensive way. I think the writer was just pointing that fact out--that maybe if we all looked at some of the language and terms we personally use, we'd discover all kinds of dishonesty, prejudice, passive-aggression, etc. in ourselves.

    I just said the other day: "Bless her heart, she's very detail-oriented." What I meant? She's way too slow. (I'm using the 'universal' she--I could have used he or it). :-)

    Oct 27, 2010
  • This decoding intro was very witty.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    While I did see the piece as wry, I was challenged--not offended. Indeed, I might suggest that those offended have been deliberately excluded from this "insider" lingo and thus, quite naturally, offended by an honest appraisal.
    Thanks for shedding light on what is often the case: code language used by people with power to manipulate and deceive.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • This issue is GREAT; funny and also serious content.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • I was furious, and surprised, when I read your editor's notes this morning and am glad I visited your website for further explanation of your intentions. I am a Ph.D. student in organizational leadership and one of my particular interests is racism in the nonprofit sector - which I encounter very often in multiple ways. I'm focusing my research on the ways that progressive social change organizations bridge differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and social class when organizing, advocating, and fundraising in hopes that this has applicability to the nonprofit sector as a whole in the future.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • A view from above the 49th parallel - I have almost given up on nonprofits having worked in HIV/AIDS, universities, hospital foundation and some other small organizations as well as my church. The failure in board staff relations has been especially painful in my role in both. The lack of appropriate, ethical management put the finishing touch on my burn-out 11 years ago. The waste and turf protection drives me crazy. The smug self-satisfied attitude that pervades the sector, especially in fund raising (where I spent the last 12 years) has really dimmed my faith in human nature. After being unemployed for over two years with 3 degrees and 2 nonprofit certificates in management & volunteer management (nothing to do with nonprofits; everything to do sub-prime mortgages and greed)

    I finally decided to leave the nonprofit world and retrain - as a social worker!!! Am I crazy? I'll probably be back in the sector but I won't be fund raising and probably won't be in management.

    Why all this preamble? Well, I delisted myself from all the newsletters on nonprofits I had subscribed - many were drivel anyway. But I kept Blue Avocado which I had only recently discovered. What a refreshing view - no fear of sacred cows, no hype - only fairness, a belief that the nonprofit sector is still worth being in. So Blue Avocado is a small flame in the darkness and that's all I need to rekindle faith. Thanks to all of you at Blue Avocado.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Here are a few more:
    "He doesn't communicate very well." Translation: He does not get along with people.

    "He doesn't communicate well at all." Translation: This guy can walk in the door, say good morning, and have the entire floor mad at him before he reaches the elevator.

    "He is a hard worker." Translation: He is a workaholic.

    "He needs training." Translation: He is incompetent.

    "He needs evaluation." Translation: Fire him for cause . . . any cause, but get rid of him.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • I kind of enjoyed this piece ... and agree that the "articulate" clarification does more to cause us to take another look at codes many whites use when talking about people of color.

    One additional note @Jessica:

    I'm focusing my research on the ways that progressive social change organizations bridge differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and social class when organizing, advocating, and fundraising in hopes that this has applicability to the nonprofit sector as a whole in the future.

    Whew -- got some jargon there! There's a place for you in the grant-writing world. But a bit of time with Strunk and White's Elements of Style might be in order. Just a tip from a wizened ol' grant writer hisself.

    Oct 27, 2010
  • This is consistently a really good resource for us -- I am impressed with how you keep it coming month after month! Despite 'not having time,' I always find the time to read blue avocado because it's always worth it and I forward articles to other people in our organization. I like the links that lead further -- they actually are related to the original story, which is definitely not true in many places (they lead to stories that are really only remotely tangential). No need to reply, just keep up the good work, and know that people out there appreciate it.

    Oct 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Ann was awful awyway...

    Oct 28, 2010
  • Anonymous

    As insight into how words can disguise true meaning--and how words can be co-opted and abused to convey meaning that was never intended, the article is worthwhile. To have written the article on code words without some background or caveats was reckless.

    There was once a time when the word "retarded" was the politically correct way to refer to an individual who has intellectual disabilities, but today it is an epithet uttered by bullies.

    As so many others have indicated, however, "Articulate" does not mean African American. In some circles it may be used as a tool of discrimination, but I would not be offended to be referred to as articulate. And I'm a "seasoned" white guy.

    P.S. For an organization to have a "good reputation" is NOT all about money. Nor is "charisma" an indication of bad management. If you want to write humor, you might consider using a few smiley faces.

    Nov 01, 2010
  • Thank you for this comment. It IS hard to be ironic and humorous in print. I should have found more ways to communicate this. Jan

    Nov 01, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Jan - Don't apologize! It was a great article -- as a woman of color who was the object of similarl obtuse comments -- such as, "I'm surprised you think of yourself as a minority, we think of being like a white person!" translation: "You are more articulate than we are" -- I thought your article was great. One of the problems with too many in the nonprofit sector is the sanctimonious, humorless attitudes!.

    Nov 04, 2010
  • Thank you for such an encouraging, heartening comment. It means a lot to me that you took the time to write! Jan

    Nov 06, 2010

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