Say What?

| by Tom McGuire

This week’s blog is part of a month-long series on creating effective, results-oriented messages for your organization.

Twelve years ago the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation asked Tony Proscio, a former associate editor at the Miami Herald, to write a brief essay on the language of the nonprofit sector.  The foundation was concerned about the threat that jargon posed to clear communication, and thus to deeper understanding among agencies, funders and the public at large.  The result was a small volume called “In other words…a plea for plain speaking in foundations.”  As a foundation director at the time, I immediately recognized myself and most of my colleagues in Proscio’s witty, thought-provoking analysis.

Most of the examples Proscio discussed in 2000 were just finding their way into the nonprofit lexicon, but 12 years later virtually all have become so entrenched in the language of our business that we rarely (or never) stop to think about what they actually mean.

We should. By doing so, we would give our grant applications, our annual reports and our donor appeals much sharper focus and, in all likelihood, better results.  Let me cite one of Proscio’s examples, and then I will offer a couple of my own updates for 2012.

“at-risk” – The granddaddy of nonprofit buzzwords over the past 15-20 years.  But as Proscio asked in 2000, what does it really mean?  Back then, “…at-risk [is] simply a polite euphemism for ‘headed into trouble.’  But in today’s [2000] etiquette of upbeat and respectful neutrality, it would be considered grotesquely prejudicial, not to say hostile, to describe people that way. ‘At-risk’ however, is regarded as abstract enough to be polite, even in mixed company.”

If there’s simply no alternative to using this open-ended catchword, Proscio advised readers to at least be clear enough to answer the obvious question:  at-risk of what?  (dropping out of school? unwanted pregnancy? substance abuse?).  By completing the phrase with an actual risk, you will state your case more forcefully, and your audience or readers will respond accordingly.

Most of Proscio’s 2000 examples stubbornly hang on today, continuing to lend just enough vagueness to conferences and grant proposals to ensure that discussion about the subject will continue – words that have an impressive appearance, but usually fail to follow through with any concrete explanation: empowerment, technical assistance, capacity, best practices, and so on.

Not only has the tendency toward verbal vagueness persisted, it seems to be growing at an accelerating rate.  Here are a couple of examples that have cropped up recently and seem to be here to stay:

“around” as in, “We would like to have a discussion around [pick your issue].”  There was a time when we would have talked “about” your issue and perhaps have come to some solid decisions about how to tackle it.  In today’s nonprofitspeak, however, the issue is presumably so daunting that we have to talk “around” it. This approach leaves us with the sense that it will be tough to get at the heart of it, but we can certainly continue talking. By substituting “around” for the perfectly acceptable “about,” we also convey the impression that we will touch on every conceivable aspect of the issue…but is that desirable, even possible?

“re-purpose” (v.)  Originally applied to a facility (“We’re raising funds to re-purpose the school auditorium”), this relatively new buzzword can be applied to organizations, events, committees….whatever.  But what’s the point of replacing a solid, clearly-understood word like “convert” with an awkward construction that wasn’t even a verb to begin with?  (How was the auditorium “purposed” originally?)  Somehow, “re-purpose” just sounds more high-minded.

I could go on, but you get the point. As the saying goings, “Words have meanings”…or at least they should. Far too often, however, those of us who work in the nonprofit “community” (…there’s another one) have a tendency wrap our meaning in a verbal gauze that softens the serious topics we’re discussing. By substituting ambiguity for precision in the words of our message, we risk leaving our audience (donor, board member, corporate partner) to wonder exactly what we meant.

The next time you read a grant or attend a nonprofit conference, pay careful attention.  I guarantee you will hear words and phrases that seem perfectly correct, but that ultimately complicate rather than elucidate.  Isn’t clear understanding of our mission and impact what we’re looking for in all our communications?

Join the conversation. Let us know what your favorite nonprofit buzzwords or phrases are, and whether you think they help or hinder your message.


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