How Nonprofits Use Language as a Barrier to Progress

Inigo Montoya - You keep using that word

Want to be a relevant, digitally engaging, and future-facing organization? You may be starting out on the wrong track. While it seems like a no-brainer, the first step is to actually understand what those words mean…because it seems that many executive leaders and staff members may not.

Before you skim ahead and chalk up these issues to “semantics,” consider that when a term is used incorrectly by leadership within an institution, other members of the organization begin to use it in the same way. When these important – and, definitionally, misunderstood – terms become “cheat” words for industry evolution, problems emerge. At the very least, the organization (if not the industry) is destined to be laggard until we either get the meanings right or someone creates a NEW word to represent the thing that the original word should have meant in the first place.  These matters of “semantics” are misguiding our industry.

Misusing (or perhaps unintentionally “redefining”) important concepts for strategic evolution happens constantly. I see it in my work every day – not to mention in public communications from nonprofit CEOs. Perhaps it’s because I’m a digital native myself, or because I work primarily with Baby Boomers to whom these words may seem relatively new in a contemporary context, or because I’m constantly in the thick of conversations regarding strategic change with my clients…but I find myself consistently feeling like Inigo Montoya (without the cool ‘stache) when words like “relevant,” “digital,” “engagement,” and the “future” come up. Interestingly, it seems that the meanings of these four important words have been jumbled together.

Cheating ourselves by not truly considering the meanings of these words may be playing a role in declining attendance to visitor-serving organizations and their increasingly grim business models. It’s certainly not helping us correct the effects of negative substitution facing the industry.

Let’s dive into these examples. Here are those four words that nonprofits often “cheat” themselves out of by (knowingly or unknowingly) redefining their meanings. In no particular order, ladies and gentleman…

 

1) Relevant (vs. current)

It seems that when someone asks, “How can we make our organization more relevant?” the proposed solutions involve tactics that are current (e.g. utilizing social media, providing analysis of a current event on a blog, or adding a widget to a website). But what if the question was phrased, “How can we make our organization more meaningful to our constituents?” (That, folks, is the true opportunity embedded within the word “relevant.”) When we use or interpret “relevant” to mean “current,” we miss the boat on more important conversations with greater potential to elevate individual organizations and the industry at large.

Being relevant is about connectivity, not content. Connectivity is king. Being current can certainly go a long way in making your organization more relevant to individuals, but promulgating the use of “relevance” to instead imply “current” shortcuts important conversations about how to actually connect with constituents and inspire them to act in the interest of your organization’s mission.

 

2) Engagement (vs. social media interaction)

Without a doubt, fostering engagement is critical for securing support in the information age. The more folks feel a connection with your organization by whatever means, the more relevant (yes, the real meaning of the word) an organization may become. Like being “relevant,” “engagement” is about connectivity. It heightens an organization’s ability to foster feelings of affinity that motivate a desired behavior.

Engagement actually means “to become involved in.” Engagement does not mean, “create a moment of semi-detached, low-level maybe-interest on a trackable social media platform”…so let’s stop using it that way. We miss out on important discussions about impact and strategy (and confuse ourselves by further  contributing to the social media data dilemma) when we reduce “engagement” to simply mean something like “Facebook likes.”

 

3) Digital strategy (vs. technological skillset)

I’ve saved the two most important for last. Industry misuse of the word “digital” may be the entire reason why many organizations aren’t very good at translating it into visits, membership, financial support, or even lasting engagement. Here’s a truth bomb: “Digital strategies” are actually real-life, human-being engagement strategies. As much as many folks working in organizations want to write “all things digital” off to the IT guys (or even the marketing department alone), humans do not think in HTML. Technological skillsets come in handy when deploying tactical, isolated aspects of these strategies. In other words, “digital strategies” are not necessarily about platforms, but about people. So executives should really stop saying, “I don’t understand that” as an excuse for digital illiteracy. This actually translates into, “I know nothing about how to engage our audiences – particularly on their preferred platforms – and I probably should not continue to hold my current position given how remarkably unqualified I am relative to the moment.” The data is pretty unassailable on this front.

Want to dig deeper into this dilemma? Here are five reasons why conceptually separating out “digital” is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.

 

4) Future (vs. present)

Talking about the “future” of organizations may be holding them back. Many industry resources supposedly focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do ourselves a grave disservice for several reasons. (For a full run-down, check out this article.) Among those is the fact that calling things that are happening in the present “the future” excuses putting off critical issues, implies uncertainty (even though the data is anything but uncertain), and this misuse of the word also fosters a false and undeserved sense of “innovation” when many organizations are not even keeping up with the day-to-day realities of the world that we live in.

 

These “matters of semantics” are playing big roles in the progress (or lack thereof) of nonprofits and visitor-serving organizations. My hope is that by identifying these “cheats” we may open our minds (and our mouths) to having bigger, more meaningful conversations about the future of our own organizations and nonprofits at large.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

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