Words Matter

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 15th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The daughter of two writers learns this in the womb:  language choices matter. 

Not too long ago, I was reminded of this when reading the article aptly titled, “Quantifying Impact Alienates Nonprofit Employees,” which spoke of research by Julia Morley of the London School of Economics. 

Over the decades, I have worked with many organizations helping them to introduce not the language of impact evaluation but impact evaluation itself.  More often than not, there is an immediate and palpable resistance. 

It seems that when we use the traditional language of impact evaluation—which overlaps with the language of the corporate world, and includes words like “measure” and “metrics” and “value proposition” and “costs” and “bottom line”—we turn off (big time) nonprofit employees, many of whom prefer the language of emotions, compassion and empathy.  It makes sense:  after all, who would want to use the language of, thereby aligning with, the greedy, soul crushing corporate world?

It is also frequently true when I have I taught impact evaluation, so much so that I tackle it head on by asking folks what they see as the inhibitors in their organizations to embracing evaluation.  The common explanations offered up are variations on the theme of fear: 

  • fear that impact evaluation is judging their performance, rather than the program’s performance; fear that they may have to change what they do and, thus, work harder
  • fear that they might learn that the program they have dedicated themselves to isn’t providing clients the help they tell them it is
  •  fear that their job could be on the line.

But most importantly is the fear that we could actually measure that which they believe is unmeasurable.  Words like measure and accountable and cost/benefit ratios are all asking the question of whether we are delivering what we promised. 

We could talk about looking at how well we are helping clients reach or seeing if our clients appreciate the services we provide.  But what does it matter if they appreciate what we do if what we do is not making a positive difference for them or, worse, harming them?  Better yet, do we use our words to help nonprofit employees understand that we can use corporate language in a helpful, supportive way, that corporate words can assist them in doing better by their clients without destroying the humanity of their jobs and their workplace?  Using these euphemisms instead of metrics only obfuscates in the interest of making a pill easier to swallow.

There are other places in our lexicon where we need to think carefully.  Take fundraising and development, often used synonymously.  Ironically, we often find offices labeled “development” that are charged with fundraising.  Moreover, that does not include higher education whose “advancement” staff are charged with fundraising. 

If you think about it, though, development is the better choice as it labels the means, while fundraising is the desired end goal.  If you doubt that development and fundraising are not synonyms, body language will clearly clue you in.  When I mention “fundraising” to boards, bodies immediately close:  arms cross, eyes look down, people try to be anywhere but there.  If I talk about development—being an ambassador, building relationships—eyes stay focused, questions are asked, people are engaged.  Two very different words engender very different reactions and, I can easily argue based on anecdotal evidence (I’ve seen no research on the matter), produce two very different outcomes.  While board members will do development – cultivation, stewardship – they run from fundraising.  Given some of the creative job titles corporations are using (i.e., Genius, Evangelist, Director of First Impressions, Chief Robot Whisper), why not have a Director of Cultivation?

I don’t recommend creativity when it comes to thinking about “grants” and “contracts;” they are not interchangeable and can cause an organization trouble for treating them as such.  Grants are money in exchange for a promise that what you propositioned in the proposal will happen.  And, in fact, when you write that required grant report, there will be a question that asks if the promise did not happen, why do you think that is the case?  The grantor anticipates that something may well interfere in your ability to deliver on your promises.  In addition, for most organizations—foundations and corporations—grants money comes out of a different pool of money from that used for contracts. 

A contract is a legal document that involves no promises; it says you will deliver whatever was put in the agreement.  There is no report at the end of the contract that allows you to explain away any failure to deliver.  In fact, if you don’t deliver, you could end up in court. 

Lastly, one of my favorite non-synonyms that most use synonymously are leader and manager.   In the paraphrased words of either Warren Bennis or Peter Drucker (I’ve seen it attributed to both; some consider Bennis to be the father of leadership, Drucker the father of management, though Drucker certainly liked to talk about both), “managers do things right; leaders do the right things.” 

While there is absolutely no question that both functions are needed, there is an implied hierarchy when in management and leadership.  And, while there is, again, no question that there are overlapping traits needed for a good manager and good leader, there are clear differences in the necessary skill sets for each.  The next promotional rung in the ladder of a manager should never be assumed leader. A leader who may not be able to climb the management ladder for lack of requisite skills might be a great leader.  The more we use these terms interchangeably, the more we blur those lines and the greater the chance that we will select poor managers and leaders, to our organization’s detriment. 

We need to listen to Bennis (and/or Drucker) and chose our words carefully.  They matter.

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