I was talking with my colleagues today about the “tyranny of language” in our sector.
What does that mean?
In a way, it’s about good intentions gone horribly awry. Think about it—our addiction to high ideals and even loftier aspirations results in grant proposals and mission statements and bold promises that burden even our most creative and charismatic leaders with performance obligations that are impossible to meet. The result: burnout and a sense of failure that is frequently unwarranted.
If it were up to me, I would eliminate the following three words from the nonprofit vocabulary: innovative, transformative, and impactful. Here’s why:
Impactful. For starters, it’s not even a word (even if it is in Wikipedia). It’s not that achieving impact in concrete and measureable terms is unimportant to the nonprofit cause. It is. But defining, measuring, synthesizing, and ultimately learning “what works” (and what doesn’t) is really hard. It takes serious thinking, serious money (and, let’s be clear, a $50,000 program grant has no dollars left to measure a program’s impact), and a serious commitment to do this over a period of at least three years. It also takes a willingness to be proven wrong.
Is it any wonder, then, that ours is a sector that manages, plans, and sometimes even attempts to expand based on the last anecdotal description of a project that was ‘impactful’?
Transformative. This is a real word, but I have no idea what it really means. Do you? And does anyone really believe that transformative change (or impact) can be accomplished with $50,000 or even $100,000? My issue here is not with the pursuit of transformation.
It is hard to argue against the transformative, life-changing effect of a safe, clean apartment for a family living in a shelter (or on the streets) or a living-wage job for the working man or woman who has been unemployed for nearly two years.
My concern is that we, as a society, expect nonprofits to deliver these things on the cheap. Not only do we systematically under-pay the cost of delivering these services but we also give virtually no thought and allocate even fewer dollars toward building the infrastructure of the organizations that provide them. What any for-profit enterprise would consider “business as usual,” such as staff training or updated information-technology platforms, nonprofits are taught to see as luxuries or even wasteful (read: overhead).
Yet these cash-starved organizations on the front lines in poor neighborhoods are achieving transformative results every day by doing the basic blocking and tackling of meeting the needs of their communities.
And this brings me to the last word, innovative. I am not negative on innovation—who would ever bash creative, entrepreneurial programs?
However, it is the need to make everything we do sound “new” and “path-breaking” that consistently undervalues the hard day-to-day work—particularly in low-income communities—of providing quality day care, teaching kids to read, providing basic health care, and ensuring that the social fabric of a neighborhood isn’t torn to shreds. I, for one, would like to celebrate that continuous work for a change. And I might even call it impactful.