Can language transform your organization?

July 2, 2009

One of my favourite bloggers, Nancy E. Schwartz, recently referred to an outstanding presentation (free for download) by career fundraiser, Tom Suddes. The title, The Language of Change: 20 words and Phrases that Impact Attitudes, Actions and Funding, immediately had me clicking through to read the transcript. Tom’s message struck a chord with me as I’m a big believer that the language we use shapes how we perceive our world.

One of Tom’s first points characterizes the tone and content of his presentation:

The first big insight is the idea of being a not-for-profit. I mean, think about that just a little bit. Is there any reason at all for you to call yourself a not-for-profit, to define yourself in the negative? I believe no. I believe the answer to that is no. You or your staff, your board, nobody wakes up in the morning and shouts, “Yeehaw! We don’t get to make any money today!

So, I want to help change your mindset here. You’ve got to stop defining yourself in the negative. You’ve got to stop begging for money. You’re not a charity. People don’t give to you because you’re tax-exempt. It’s all about an impact – your vision, your message. And that’s where I’m hoping that you’re able to go with this.

We so often use “deficit” language emphasizing need that we overshadow the message of hope and success towards the goal of our cause. So, Tom advocates for cause organizations to move away from “mission statements” and towards communicating the essence of what the organization is all about. What is the impact of your organization and how can people become involved with that?

Other words/terms he takes on include “sustainability” “development officers” and even the word “appointments” when describing meeting with a potential “donor”—another term he urges us to change.

The change in language isn’t just for the purpose of the organization’s audience, it also changes the attitudes of board members, staff and volunteers.

Language evolves, so I don’t expect that organizations will instantly change the terms and words they use to describe their work. But even the act of examining why we use the terms/words we do and how that influences our approach and attitude is a worthwhile exercise.

Much of what Tom puts forth in this presentation challenges the entire culture and orientation of the nonprofit world. Well done!

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