Changing Our Thinking

Sometimes, no matter how long we’ve been thinking about something a certain way, it is necessary to change our perspective.  This realization came to me recently when I had a conversation with the staff of a mid-sized nonprofit up near the Great Lakes.

It all began when their director contacted me and said that even though she and her one of her senior managers saw the value in using an outcomes approach in their work, she was having trouble getting the rest of the staff to really buy in.  She asked if I’d join them in a conference call so I could answer some of their questions and help convince the group that this was an idea worth pursuing.

In listening to them talk, I was struck by two things: the number of time they referred to their “funders,” and the number of times they made reference to the services they were making available to the community.

I suggested that part of the problem they were having in seeing the value in the outcomes approach was in the words they were using.

Words have power.  They can sooth and heal, or they can cut and hurt.  We all know this.  What we’re often not as aware of, however, is that the words we use not only offer a window into our thinking, but frequently color and impact that thinking.

For example, let’s think about the sector’s habit of using the word “funder.”

In my mind, there are at least two problems with this term.  The first is its undeniable accent on the “funds.”  When we use this term, we are effectively saying that the money is the only part of our relationship with these sources of support that is important.  There is nothing in the term to suggest that they are our partners, that we and they are in this together, working toward the same goals, sharing the same values.

Beyond this, “funder” strongly suggests a one-way relationship, one party giving and the other taking or receiving with no strings attached.  Nowhere in the concept of “funder” is there any suggestion that anything is owed in return (Much the same, BTW, could be said about our use of the term “donor”).

On both counts, this is a mistake.

Those who support us, whether they are individuals or institutions like a foundation or government agency, are not “giving” us the resources we require, they are investing in us, our vision for a better community, and in our ability to bring that better community into being.  What is important for all of us to recognize is that they’re not either “funders” or “donors.”  They are, in fact…and in every sense of the word…investors. And they are owed a return.

To get a better sense of what that return should be, we should think about what it is that they’re investing in.

Often the answer from our sector is that they are investing so we can make services available to those who need them, so we can do our jobs.  But this too, I think, is a mistake.

Last week, in our discussion of outcomes, we mentioned that outcomes are not what we do.  Rather, they are the things that happen because of what we do.  That lesson is applicable here.

Our investors are not providing resources so we can make services available, or simply do our jobs.  They are investing in the changes those services, and us doing our jobs, will hopefully bring about.  In other words, they are investing in change.

This, if we accept it, leads to a third shift in thinking: if they are investing in change, then activity accounts and tallies of how busy we’ve been are not what’s truly important.  Rather meaningful measures reflecting the amount of change we’ve been able to bring about in a situation is what actually matters.  Of course, I also believe that an outcomes approach is the best way to get meaningful measures of the changes we’ve brought about or contributed to…which bring us full circle.

Changing our thinking is rarely easy for most of us.  Most of us like and are comfortable with the way we think.  But there are times when our thinking, if we are to do better, needs to change.  When it comes to our work, the sources of our support, and what we owe in return, this may be one of those times.


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