Sunday, December 5, 2010

Politics and the Nonprofit Language

"As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."

- George Orwell, "Politics and the English language," 1946
I think it's widely accepted in the nonprofit field that there is no common set of terms to describe the work we are doing. I recently read Melinda Tuan's "Measuring and/or Estimating Social Value Creation," about the different ways to measure social impact, which comes with a helpful glossary of terms at the end. She says that she created this glossary because: "The organizations we profiled in this paper often use different words to describe the same thing or use the same word to describe different things. This can be very confusing and obfuscate the true methodologies or results behind the various approaches."

I came up with my own Glossary of Useful Terms a few months ago, but these were much less helpful than Tuan's, by design. Defining things in the most abstract sense (Social Return on Investment: Helping people with your money; Social Enterprise: The thing that you do when you do things) was supposed to be humorous, but also tried to get the point across that the words that we use when describing what we are doing have no real meaning outside of the contexts they are used in.

The use of language has been important to me since I read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" in high school. If you are a writer (and if you are a blogger, you are a writer), I strongly recommend you read this piece.

In it, Orwell discusses what he sees as the denigration of the English language by lazy writers, which influences the way people think and the way people behave. He says that hiding in the abstract, rather than explaining the concrete, reduces the need of critical thought and critical dialogue, which can create a level of complacency with the status quo in society. If a writer describes the bombing of a village during wartime, he says, as "pacification," the images of the reality of that violence will never spring into the reader's mind, and therefore, no one will question the action. (If you've read his most-famous work, "1984," this theme isn't anything new.)

Now, I'm not trying to argue that the nonprofit sector is guilty of misconstruing language to the point that war crimes are glossed over. But I do think we are guilty of what Orwell described in the quote that started off this post. We quickly fall into the abstract, either in writing or in talking, which can lead to the confusion between organizations that Tuan describes. If one person thinks of social enterprise as strictly a for-profit venture, but another thinks of it as anything that is working to create social change, whether it be for-profit or non, that can create issues as both of them try to work out the concrete details needed to get anything done.

I think the most obvious example of this is the word "nonprofit" itself. We throw around the phrase nonprofit for anything with 501 (c) 3 status, which is technically accurate, but fundamentally devoid of any real meaning. A nonprofit can be a grantmaking organization, a community-based health center, or a gun lobbyist organization. Making statements about the "nonprofit sector" are general and broad, and therefore, most certainly inaccurate. I've read studies or blog posts with authors who describe trends for community-based organizations, or funders, or educational institutions, or high-net worth philanthropists, but instead of keeping their conclusions concrete and specific, they rely on the word "nonprofit" to make general conclusions. The lack of specificity confuses and is counter-productive.

There are many reasons for this reliance on the abstract, and most of the are reasonable. The nonprofit sector (see, even I do it!) has only recently, compared to the business sector, been accepted as a "sector," with best practices, a capital stream, professional development, etc. The difficulty with measurement of social returns, as described in Tuan's article, makes it difficult to come up with a standard set of reporting language, which I think influences general language use regarding nonprofits. These are real issues, but they need to be addressed. Collaborations among nonprofits are becoming more and more essential, and standardized and specific language use is necessary to create successful collaborations. If we can't talk to each other in the same terms, it'll be a lot harder to get things done, and we will just keep shooting in the dark when we talk to each other about our work.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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