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The importance of language

Language is one of the most powerful communication tools we have, and the way we use it can have a profound effect on how we connect with the for-purpose sector. In conversation, and especially in an interview (be it formal or informal) terms that may seem insignificant can often be a determining success factor, especially for those with commercial backgrounds who are new to the for-purpose sector.

A common example is to talk about ‘giving back’ which can be perceived more arrogantly than ‘contributing’. ‘Organisations’ rather than ‘companies’ exist in the sector and many look at their ‘social return on investment’ (SROI), rather than financial or more traditional economic returns.

Jargon and acronyms exist. Organisations talk about output, outcomes and impact and there are differences in the meaning of each. Donors are often referred to as social investors. There are PAF’s and PuAFs (often called puffs) and some key players within the sector are often only referred to as the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission) the FIA (Fundraising Institute of Australia) and the CSI (the Centre for Social Impact). 

So doing some research and understanding these terms will put you in good stead. There are buzz words and terms like ‘shared value’ and ‘social enterprise’ and a new vocabulary emerging around the rise and rise of social finance. Profit is no longer a dirty word and schools of thought around The Starvation Cycle(1) and the overnight fame of Dan Pallotta on TED are helping to change the way we think about language in the sector. Be careful about using sweeping generalisations regarding a lack of sophistication, innovation and evaluation in the sector. 

The sector has come along way and although it has lots of room for improvement it employs many innovative, capable, accountable and highly effective individuals. Be sensitive to this when you articulate the value you believe you bring to an organisation. There is more to consider. Remember that it often starts with the written word and consider that each cause area within the sector and more specifically, organisations within the sector, have their own language and terminology.

Make yourself familiar with the language used by the organisation you are looking to contribute to, and include it in your application. Someone once told me that it’s not love that makes the world go round. It’s communication. I couldn't agree more.

Rachael McLennan, People for Purpose Co-Founder and Executive Director

(1) Goggins Gregory, A. & Howard, D. (2009) The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in Stanford Social Innovation Review, September 2009.

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