From the archives, but still relevant today – Read on for how to avoid Vocabulary Wars.
Last week we were with an organization that helps homeless people find and secure permanent housing. The Executive Director of this organization had spent the last 10 years – off and on – trying to get three specific area Foundations ‘on board.’ In that time, some $10K grants had been awarded but for the most part the Foundations said, “We don’t fund projects like yours.”
The mission statements for the foundations were almost identical to that of this homelessness organization. And, each Foundation had funded similar agencies working in the homeless arena.
After some discussion, I realized that the challenge has been vocabulary, not fit. For example:
- This organization receives about $1M annually from the government — to be used for ‘capital’. It turned out that ‘capital’ in this definition meant anything that had to do with the actual home or residence (including programs to get into the residence.) In the case of this organization, the ‘home’ was the OBJECTIVE of the program. Kind of hard to end homelessness without a home somewhere in the equation… no?
- The Foundations avoided ‘capital’ projects. It turned out the ‘capital’ meant ‘capital campaign’ to the them – bricks and mortar, campaign committees, fancy office chairs, etc.
- The organization had structured all of its internal vocabulary based on conversations with the government. These vocabulary words were deal killers with the private foundations who heard “capital campaign” when they wanted to focus on more “programs for the homeless.” (I’m not making this up.)
So, here’s what we did:
- We coached the organization’s senior leadership to go back to one of the Foundations. This time the organizations was to ask questions, listen and use the Foundation’s vocabulary to advance a discussion.
- The key questions to ask were, “What is the biggest challenge you’re seeing with respect to ending homeless in this area? How are you working to address that challenge?”
- The Foundation said it felt a lack of ‘housing opportunities’ were available to the working poor and that it was trying to identify agencies that worked as a catalyst to create more opportunities. Note: The most critical point of this entire story is probably right here. The organization had to LISTEN to the foundation to pull off the right ask.
- The organization’s leadership was then able to position its work as a ‘catalyst to create more housing opportunities’.
- Both the foundation and the organization leadership described the ensuing conversation as ‘electric’ and ‘exciting.‘ They will be meeting again next month to talk about a multi-year financial partnership.
For 10 years, would-be partners had failed to align for what amounted to a vocabulary war. At times the relationship was even contentious – there were debates and arguments between foundation heads and leaders in this organization about right/wrong and ‘justice’ in funding.
It’s important to realize in this story that at 30,000’ they were in COMPLETE alignment: all parties were trying to end homelessness. The fact that the homeless organization was getting a token $10K here and there was an indicator that there was alignment on the CAUSE (WHY), but not the CASE (WHAT). The relationship was advanced – light speed – by really, really listening and aligning the solution in terms the funder understood.
The only way to avoid a vocabulary war is to listen.
Note: In the actual coaching I said to the ED, “I want you just to listen.. to really understand the foundation’s challenges. When you hear a word you don’t understand, ask them to define it. Keep listening until you can say, ‘wait a minute, we can help solve that!’”.