Vocabulary Wars

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!’”.


Start With The Why

A few weeks ago we published “10 Action Steps to Help you Engage in 2016.” Over the next 10 weeks, we are going to use each action step as a week long theme to help you get it done! This week’s theme is SIMPLIFY YOUR MESSAGE.

Start with the Why is our number one For Impact Guiding Principle.

I came across a brilliant thinker, Simon Sinek, who has a great book, Start With Why, a powerful Ted Video, and an amazing story around the power of ‘WHY.’

The essence of his message:

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

He calls it the ‘Golden Circle’.

Mediocre organizations and leaders always sell ‘outside-in’: talking about WHAT, then HOW (features, benefits), and never even getting to the WHY.

Great leaders sell ‘inside-out’ – leading with the WHY.

Sinek’s Golden Circle is our ALTITUDE FRAMEWORK… with research!

Starting with Why has many implications in our For Impact world; here’s a few:

A vocabulary challenge to the sector. What prospects hear (often times) is “We need money to meet our annual funding goal” or “Buy a table at our gala.” These messages have no WHY, but what your prospects want to do is save, change and impact lives.

Selling happens at 30,000’. The number one question of every investor is, “Why do you exist?” If the person you are talking to doesn’t care about your WHY, it’s very hard to talk to her about the what and the how. Conversely, if your WHY is his number one priority, you can ask on the proverbial ‘first date.’

There are 1.5M nonprofits in the U.S. You must be able to talk about your raison d’etre (reason for existence); otherwise, you just ‘exist to exist.’