For Impact


Vocabulary Wars

For Impact Ideas | | Nick Fellers

Last week we were with an organization that helps the homeless 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 the that of this homelessness organization. As well, each foundation had funded similar agencies working in the homeless arena.
After asking some questions I suspect the challenge has been one to do more with vocabulary, than ‘fit’.

  • This homelessness 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 foundations… bricks and mortar, campaign committees, fancy office chairs, etc.

  • The homelessness organization had structured all of its internal vocabulary based on conversations with the government. These vocab words were deal killers with the private foundations which heard, “capital campaign” and wanted to focus on more “programs for the homeless”. [I’m not making this up.]

Here’s what we/they did:

  • We coached the organization’s senior leadership to go back to one of the foundation. This time the organizations was to ask questions, listen and use the foundation’s vocabulary to advance a discussion.

  • The key questions to ask (in this instance) 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 has to LISTEN to the foundation to pull off this conversation.

  • The homeless organization’s leadership was able then 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 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 our solution in terms the funder understood.

The 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!’”.