Thursday, September 23, 2010

Give Your Small NP's Communications "The Business"


Over at Duck Call, the post is about striving for clarity in your writing – knowing the rules of grammar and be willing to break them if it will get your point across better. There’s something I’d like to add to that: improve and segment your communications vocabulary.

How Come Why For?

Because of the Business of Charity. We all know how the economic landscape has changed. The Wall St. meltdown hit a lot of foundations as much as anyone else and there’s less money to go around. This has made the foundations more picky and one of the ways that shows is in the grant proposal requirements – they are expecting nonprofits to be more “businesslike” in the way they present themselves and their missions. Before the foundations hand out a check, they want to make sure that the money will be spent as they expect it to be and the reports will be impeccable. Sure, that’s a Duh. But one of the ways your small nonprofit may be judged on its communications with its funders is in the lexicon it uses.

How Well Do You Talk the Talk?

Any money from a grant to a very small (maybe micro) nonprofit usually comes in reverse snowball form.  That is, a mid-sized education nonprofit may get a grant from a large foundation (the snowall) and then parcel it out to small and micro sized nonprofits (the snowball diminishes as it rolls downhill). Because the big guys are requiring the mid-sized guys to be “businesslike” in their dealings, and the mid-sized guys have to report back to the big guys, they’re going to be asking the little guys (you) to be “businesslike”, too.

In the overview of the Fractured Atlas Course: The Business of Charity in the New Economy, the description of Adam Sutler’s talk includes this:
He considers legal strategies, like the L3C and fiscal sponsorship; discusses structural approaches, including systems-centric cluster management; and notes the philosophical underpinnings of the whole conversation — Who are our customers? Is professionalism really a good thing? When should infrastructure be outsourced?

Fiscal sponsorship. Systems-centric cluster management. Outsourcing infrastructure.

Maybe you already know what these terms refer to with respect to nonprofits. (I’m good with the first and last, but fuzzy on the middle one.) Maybe you’re clueless on all three. Well, you may need to get un-clueless.

I Didn’t Sign Up For This

Oh, yes you did.

I know – this kind of talk makes my eyes glaze over, too. I prefer my communications to be less… businesslike or academia-like. More direct, less abstract. But I’m not looking for a grant and you are. So you need to add some terms to your communications with funders.  And now, a word to the wise:

Way, way back, when I was very young and more evil and business management ala Gordon Gecko was as sexy as parachute pants and big hair, a friend and coworker of mine and I shared a boss who had come up the hard way (no MBA or CPA). He was desperate to be viewed as business hip and had the slicked back hair and suspenders under his pin-striped, double-breasted suit to prove it. He also had a habit of using the business-speak of the moment to underscore that hipness.  My friend and I did not think well of his management. As department heads, we would sit down with this man early every Monday to discuss the plan of the week before getting together with the rest of the troops for a multi-departmental meeting in the afternoon. Before our private meeting began, my friend and I would get together and construct a business-sounding phrase, usually made up of bits and pieces of phrases that were going around at the time, and both of us would use this phrase strategically during our meeting with our boss. Then we would count the number of times he used it during the afternoon meeting and were always delighted when we could hear him using the phrase in discussions with his bosses (I said I was more evil then). I know some of the directors and the VP wondered where the heck he was getting this stuff from. The lesson I’m trying to impart here is – no cheating – you need to know what the terms mean and how they apply to you and your mission. If you try to plug jargon into your communications to show how hip you are, you run the risk of exposing how much you really don’t know.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

You might get to liking this new vocabulary and spend more time puttering about in your new lexicon, admiring the hard sheen of the financial phrases and the sturdy solidity of the business management descriptives. That’s fine. I personally collect old slang and ordering shorthand from the days of soda jerks (“nervous pudding” = Jello). But don’t let it carry into your communications with the people in your non-funder community. Keep your conversations with them conversational and pretty much free of your fancy, high-falutin’ business talk. When you do have to use business-of-charity phrases like “strategic plan”, make sure you define them and make sure you define them in terms of what they mean to the community, not necessarily what they mean to your small nonprofit as a going concern. It’s fine to tell your funder that a grant for creating a new five year strategic plan will “allow your agency to re-examine the foundation of your mission with respect to the current economic climate so that you can identify strategies to leverage resources in a way that will underscore commitment to the core segment of the community the mission was instituted initially to address…” But leave that stuff out of your tweets and FB posts, et cetera.

You might infer from what I've been saying that I detest business jargon. In general, that's true. I hate any kind of communications that obscures meaning instead of clarifying it. But there are also different vocabularies for different communities. Like the soda jerks or hash-slingers of old, these groups have a way of expressing themselves that, when used, alerts the listener to the fact that the speaker is knowledgeable in their field.

One Last Word

Do use social media to find out these things. You’re on the mailing lists for blogs and newsletters and such from social media “influencers” (Ha! Jargon!). Don’t just let this kind of talk go by in the stream. Social media is one of the best places to hear the latest theories and learn about the latest trends and best practices (another term).  You’re trying to do good, and getting grant money may be a part of that. Heck, even local businesses may be more inclined to support you if they feel you understand their language. Just try to be honest and as clear as you can be, even when using jargon. Whatever you do, it’s about the mission, right?

It’s always about the mission.

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