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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

In Other Words

Pamela J. Oakes

By Pamela J. Oakes
The Profitable Nonprofit

As a Nonprofit Fund Development expert, I am often called upon to help my clients craft the messaging and promotional narratives by which they’ll communicate their story.  A well-crafted story serves to engage and inspire an audience while cultivating a richer understanding of the context surrounding a social impact mission.  Despite the best intentions, it’s surprising how often I encounter corporate narratives using verbiage that is counter-productive to their work.  The problem occurs when organizations fail to recognize ways in which vocabulary can reinforce negative stereotypes or endorse implicit bias.

How often have you seen a mission or vision statement containing terms like; “at-risk”, “disadvantaged”, “dysfunctional”, “third-world”, “under-privileged”, “poverty-stricken” and other sweeping generalizations characterizing an entire people group or demographic?  These terms are so prolific when describing populations of color, that we’ve become desensitized to their destructive nature.  We fail to recognize how the vocabulary used to describe a group, can subconsciously create a mental “lens” through which we view that group.  Simply through word choice organizations can encourage certain interpretations while discouraging others.  In other words…vocabulary can either support positive attributes or reinforce negative biases.  

New York Times best-selling author, Trabian Shorters, who pioneered award-winning work in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion contends, defining any people group by their challenges only serves to stigmatize the group and causes others to relate to that group in prejudiced ways.  The repetition of negative terminology primes us to look for examples that reinforce the negative story.  Once we find evidence of the negative story, our minds justify the negative bias, the positive traits of the group are ignored, become invisible, and as a result the group continues to be labeled by its failings and inadequacies.

Nobody wants to be viewed as a “problem to be solved” and it is counter-productive for social causes to vilify the very populations they are attempting to serve.  The fact is, regardless of challenges being faced, EVERY community is rich in talent, brilliance, untapped potential, and underutilized resources.  Regardless of the location, there will always be community members desiring youth development, dignified housing, quality education, and public safety.  Inherent to EVERY individual, organization, or community are capacities which can be utilized to improve whatever conditions are present.

It is incumbent upon all organizations – specifically those involved in community development – to reframe their corporate narrative and seek out, discover and affirm the existing assets in populations being served.  Being a nonprofit professional, I envision a future where social enterprises abandon the notion of parachuting into a community as the “savior.”  Instead, organizations partner with and join the community out of a shared passion for the issues, identify communities by their contributions rather than their problems and then engage communities in living out their aspirational identity.

Trabian Shorters summed it up best, “To build more caring and prosperous communities where everyone is afforded equitable opportunities to grow their health, wealth, know-how and networks; we must first define people by their aspirations and contributions”

Amen to that!

Pamela J. Oakes, Managing Director of The Profitable Nonprofit, is a funding consultant helping small and emerging nonprofits achieve funding sustainability. Pamela previously worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

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