man talking into can and string like telephone

What Lauryn Hill and Clara Miller Have in Common

Remember that 1998 jam “Everything is Everything” by Lauryn Hill? Turns out she was on to something back in the 90’s. Everything really is everything.

Well, better late than never. We need language reform, now.

My babe was turning nine months old and the babbling had catapulted to a new level. My partner and I lay in bed at night imagining how funny it would be when our child walks into the room and says something. We’ll be speechless! Joking aside, it’s tremendously exciting to imagine our toddler speaking words, crystallizing thoughts, asking questions. Language is one of the most unique and high-functioning elements of being human; something that separates us from most other species.

Yet there’s a part of me that mourns the loss of our baby learning spoken language.

As it liberates, so it limits as well.

Since about two months old this child has offered up the most intricate, expressive faces I’ve ever seen on a person in my life. Truly worth a thousand words! Who needs baby sign language when you can watch the eyes widen, narrow, blink, droop, sag, and spring open again? Who needs words when you can squeeze, purse, stretch, curl, bite, and smile? Who needs speech when you can click, trill, sigh, shriek, cackle, and cry?

I’m afraid that once my baby starts talking, all these nuances will be lumped together into “happy” or “sad”.

Oh, what loss is growing up!

While there are (at least) 25 different ways to say happy in English (cheerful, content, delighted, ecstatic, elated, glad, joyful, jubilant, lively, merry, peaceful, pleasant, thrilled, upbeat, blissful, chipper, exultant, gay, gleeful, gratified, intoxicated, playful, sparkling, and sunny), English is not even close to the most expressive language in the world. Inuit speakers boast over 50 different terms for ice and snow, while the Sami people of northern Scandinavia have almost 200.

We in the public-profit sector are constantly limited by our business language, as I describe in a recent post Time for Enterprise Thinking…and Talking, potentially to the detriment of the sector’s future. This linguistic limitation is further reinforced by the stories we tell ourselves, something I wrote about in one of my very first posts.

How we talk matters greatly!

A classic example of these limitations in our everyday work speech is the word “but”. The devilish thing pops up at the blink of an eye, ready to feverishly denounce that which has just been said. While it does have some traditionally acceptable usages, we’ve normalized the use of this word to offer faux sympathy, understanding, or praise while undercutting the accused seconds later.

Consider how the meaning of a sentence changes when “but” is replaced by “and”.

Another example is the word “should”, waiting to flex around every corner like a wagging finger. Indicative of a widely accepted culture of fear-of-falling-short, we “should on” our friends, family, and most often, ourselves.

Consider how the meaning of a sentence changes when “should” is replaced by “could”.

Likewise, I propose in Time for Enterprise Thinking…and Talking that the charitable sector could be improved tremendously just by replacing non-profit with public-profit. Mediocre organizations without sustainable business models or value propositions are protected by this outdated language. I suggest we use this refresher to get brutally honest about who is actually making change, and then respectfully lay the others to rest. Not all non-profits are created equal. We exhaust ourselves and lose leverage trying to keep them all afloat.

Just recently I learned that philanthropic giant Darren Walker arrived at the same conclusion.

The new president of one of America’s most influential foundations together with his colleagues has established a strategy called FordForward. This innovative approach will fund the most critical AND the most financially stable organizations, a rare and vitally important combination in the sector. FordForward will offer less applicants greater support in key areas like bridging inequality gaps. This represents a controversial yet powerful vision for philanthropy that will likely become a paradigm shift in public charity work.

Walker’s shift is largely in line with the direction I suggest via non-profit language reform. Changing the way we talk about ourselves and our businesses will encourage the cream to rise to the top.

Clara Miller, founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and new president of the Heron Foundation, also suggests we update our language.

In her Nonprofit Quarterly article she explains that “All investing is impact investing and all enterprises are, essentially, social…”

Sound a bit like Lauryn Hill?

Miller continues…“…[paraphrasing Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the Social Sectors]…The critical distinction is not between business and social, but between great and good”.

Sound a bit like Darren Walker?

Everything really is everything. Investing is always impactful; that’s the point. And — here’s the doozy —enterprises are always social, as long as they involve humans.

Thanks to Miller and other prominent voices in cutting-edge philanthropic leadership, this rhetoric shift (or rather, rhetoric elimination) is driving real change, as predicted. Lines are dissolving between values in one silo of a foundation (financial return on investments) and values in another (impact return on grants).

Language can move mountains (of money)!

RSF Social Finance, an organization spearheading this exact dissolution, calls their new strategy Integrated Capital Deployment. Miller calls it Integrated Investment. Lauryn Hill calls it Everything is Everything.

I call it Walking The Talk (aka Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is).

At my organization we are diving head-first into a strategic re-orientation similar to the Ford and Heron Foundations, and we would greatly benefit from language reform. Because our core work involves partnering with private-profit social enterprises, our daily conversations have turned to what it means to be social.

We all agree the definition of social enterprise has changed dramatically since double- or triple-bottom-line businesses emerged as a growing force in the 1980’s. While it was initially ground-breaking to consider the environmental impact of your company’s manufacturing choices, for example, you’d be estranged from the business community today if you didn’t.

In a sense, we can call this a success. However, social enterprise, like racism, is a slippery creature. Once exposed it slides a layer deeper. Now we face questions of a more complex nature. Enterprises are no longer simply social or not. We see conflicting levels of social commitments within a single organization, and as such the term “social” to describe an entire entity is no longer appropriate.

July 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Eden Foods president and Non-GMO Project staffer Michael Potter, a regular advocate for organic purity and GMO labeling at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), could continue excluding contraception from the health care plan he offers employees, based on his personal religious affiliation.

So what do you think? Is Eden Foods a “social” business? Is Yahoo “social” because of its woman CEO, or is its executive compensation policy offensive to the economic justice movement? Is New Belgium Brewery “social” because it is a B Corporation and meets rigorous environmental, legal, and governance standards, or does it miss the mark because of its all-white staff of hundreds? Is Chevron the enemy of social enterprise because of its core business line, or is it entirely social because of its commitment to a diverse workforce as not just the “right thing to do but good business practice and an important competitive advantage”?

Entities, whether public- or private-profit, cannot be social by nature as long as they are made up of more than one human.

Without a new way of identifying work making the greatest positive impact on social justice goals, the public-profit sector will miss major opportunities to leverage powerful partnerships. Hill and Miller are right — everything is social — so we need new differentiators.

Instead of focusing on whether enterprises themselves are social, let’s consider evaluating specific initiatives within those enterprises. Instead of identifying social enterprises, let’s start identifying social initiatives.

Eden Foods’ GMO-labeling initiative is social; its health care initiatives are not necessarily so. Yahoo’s commitment to women in leadership is social; its executive compensation practices are not so much. New Belgium Brewery’s sustainable sourcing initiative is social; its diversity initiatives (or lack thereof) are not. Chevron’s hiring practices may be social; its core business line is not.

If we start acknowledging social initiatives, we may find a lot more opportunity for unexpected partnerships, ultimately leading to greater momentum toward solving the world’s biggest problems.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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About The Author

The Emotional Businessist's picture

"I like to explore the intersection between emotion and business in the public-profit world. I have observed a natural tension in this space which leads to juicy and provocative conversations. I try to remain detached, stay open-minded, and play devil's advocate to seek and speak the truth."

TheEmoBiz lives in the forest with a spouse, toddler, and dog, has been working in business for over a decade, has a daily spiritual practice, and comes from a family of writers. Follow @TheEmoBiz on Medium and Twitter.
 

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