They contain nuances, shades of meaning, and implications. Far more importantly, however, they often bespeak a mindset, a perspective, and even a course of action.
It is for this reason that I repeatedly urge client organizations in the nonprofit space to change some very basic terms they use –especially in this era where “results” are finally being recognized as being so seminally important- because I believe the words we so often use frequently-if-inadvertently suggest or even impose a way of thinking that works against the way our sector ought to be approaching what it does.
The first term and concept I suggest clients jettison is the entire idea of having “funders.”
Because, on the one hand, a “funder” is, virtually by definition, primarily focused on the mechanisms of FUNDING. The whole accent in the mind of the recipient, meanwhile, is on the notion of getting FUNDED…getting the money.
Nowhere in that image is the idea of a quid pro quo…something that is owed back. From this perspective –and all you need do is peruse some of the websites offering help and guidance on “getting funded” to see evidence of this- that funding, the resources received, can take on the appearance of a no-strings gift.
It is interesting to note not only how long this term has been with us, but that from the start the notion of investors did not come naturally to our sector. Instead, we had “funders,” which left open the question of who was on the other side of that equation.
That never caught on, and probably for good reason….
Still, even today, while you do hear of “grant-makers” and “grantees,” only rarely do you hear “investor” and “investee” the one description of the relationship that would imply, if not make absolutely clear, that a return on that investment –a tangible, specified result- is both due and expected. Words matter; and here I think we’ve been using the wrong language for decades.
Similarly, one often hears the term “results measurement” when organizations finally turn the corner and begin thinking about their outcomes. I would submit that the notion of “measurement,” while a necessary component of the process, is the perhaps not the best accent, or the one we should be using. In its place, I’d suggest that groups adopt the perspective of “results management,” because if you are not managing your efforts toward results it becomes very unclear what you are or ought to be “measuring.” An outcomes approach is not simply (or even primarily) about counting. Rather, it is about beginning with a clear, unambiguous, well defined and stated outcome target…and then managing your resources toward the achievement of that goal. It is also about learning…taking stock in an on-going way, of your progress toward your goal and how close you came to achieving it; and making course adjustments where necessary to bring you closer to the achievement you promised to deliver in your outcome. This is where the “measurement” component comes in; not in “counting” activities or clients’ characteristics -a cul-de-sac into which all too many organizations often inadvertently wander- but rather as a way to establish how closely they were able to get in achieving the goals they established as their outcomes. It is this accomplishment in which investors and stakeholders are the most interested. The head counts and client profiles are ancillary to this essential and central message. The goal should be able to report how-well-did-we-do, as well as how-much-did-we-do…and the first of those considerations is actually the more important. Unfortunately, the term “results measurement” neither implies nor fosters an accent on the managing and learning so essential to success. Words matter; and here again I think we’ve been using the wrong language.
Finally, I am often troubled by the use of the term “mission-based organization.” The accent in that term is undeniably “mission,” and would seem to imply that if the mission is laudable then all is well. Unfortunately, “mission,” while it suggests purpose, intent, and even raison d’être, says nothing about impact; and there are far too many groups which, while their hearts are pure and their missions admirable, are simply inefficient or ineffective. “Mission,” in our realm is clearly important; but the most admirable mission in the world is no substitute for actually bringing about positive, verifiable, sustainable changes in the lives or conditions of those we exist to serve. What differences in thinking, I often ask, would be implied, seeded, and nurtured by moving to the perspective of being a “performance-driven” organization, rather than a “mission-based” one? What message would that send to staff, stakeholders, investors, and yes, even to clients if we said that we self-identified by our performance, by what we actually accomplished, rather than by our “mission”? I suggest that it could have a significant and reviving impact.
Words matter; and I humbly suggest that it is time we began thinking about and using the right ones.