Words matter.

Words matter.

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.”

Why?

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.

“Fundees”?

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.

7 Responses to “Words matter.”

  1. Peter Gorham February 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Great food for thought, Bob.

    I especially like your observation that the focus of “results” should be on “the managing and learning so essential to success.” I’ve found that no matter how important the “mission” and clear the “goals,” effective program implementation (i.e, management) can produce results that differ from what is expected. Words and concepts can set the direction for action, but will not necessarily take into account the variables encountered and the complexity of the effort required.

    About 4 decades ago I attended a seminar given by Martin Landau (the NYU political scientist, not the actor). In his talk, he presented the notion that every social program is a hypothesis to be tested. That thought has guided (and haunted) me throughout my career.

    And it still applies as we talk about outcomes and results today.

    • Dr. Bob February 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      Glad you agreed with what I wrote, Peter. The message is something of a mantra with me as I go around the country speaking to and working with groups based upon my Toolbox book.. Often I find that they have been swept up by the wave of the results/outcomes/performance movement, but do not quite understand the underlying thinking from which it was born. Hence, the piece I sent you today.

  2. Pete Miragliotta February 1, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    Congratulations Bob. Clearly and concisely stated the value for NPOs to understand what success in their mission looks like and how to tell if they are being successful.

    • Dr. Bob February 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

      Glad you found it useful, Pete

  3. David Hunter February 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Hey Bob,

    Good points, well made. I go into quite a bit of practical detail in this regard in my forthcoming book that will be downloadable FREE from iBooks and Kindle by the end of this month. Published by Mario Morino, the title is: “Working Hard and Working Well.”

    In the book I emphasize six organizational elements that are key to performance management:

    Success-focused Leaders
    Results-focused Managers
    A system of accountability for results at all levels of the organization
    Results-focused budgeting
    Measurement and monitoring
    Evaluation (formative and summative)

    Best regards,

    David

  4. Elizabeth June 26, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    I absolutely agree.

    I used to work for a small nonprofit where there seemed to be too much focus on “getting money” and not enough on getting the job done well with what funds existed. This organization is now struggling financially and the program for which I worked was relocated to another agency, which the funder believed (and rightly so) would be more cost effective.

    I have absolutely no idea what the “mission” of this organization was, although I worked there for three and a half years. It seemed to be “We’ll do anything we can get some money to do.”

    • Dr. Bob June 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

      Elizabeth…
      It is unfortunate that you became, at least in part, a victim of this mentality. Some call it “mission creep;”
      some simply call it “chasing the dollars.” While it true that many nonprofits do need to develop new revenue streams as time goes on, it is a pity when obtaining money becomes the organization’s prime focus…and the “work” it was created to do becomes simply the “excuse” for getting the money. This is one of the reasons that I counsel nonprofits to do away with the word “funder.” The entire focus of the relationship implied by that word is one where one party gives and the other takes…but it suggests NO responsibility for any sort of a return. That is why I much prefer the word “investor,” for that word essentially tells organizations that they owe a return on that investment…..in other words, provable outcomes and measurable performance. I hope your next job proves more satisfying.

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