This is for my Corporates. Lesson 1: Watch your language

This is the first in a series called This is for my Corporates.

If you are a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series is for you!

Lesson 1: Corporate language is different from development speak

Your use of language says a lot about you. People mistrust you anyway because you are new. And corporate. If you come in talking all kinds of corporate smack, people will give you a polite (or not so polite) talk to the hand reaction. So you need to alter your language from corporate to development speak.

Stop referring to people in communities or staff in your sub-offices overseas as clients. Use the term partners; it should be a relationship between equals. Stop saying that you are marketing ideas or funding opportunities to people working on the ground, it’s a turn off. Instead you should be listening to them and supporting them to do what they think is best in the local setting. They’re not there for you to sell them your ideas or your products or your solutions, or those of your donors.

If you treat people as partners, as equals, without being patronizing (because you think the corporate sector is superior to the non-profit sector), people might listen to your ideas. But if you think of this as selling your ideas and solutions to clients, if you try to push things on people who don’t see the need for them or don’t think your solution is right for them, you are going to fail.

And anyway, in the business world, it’s the client who has the money, so your metaphor is screwed up to begin with; because in this case, you are holding the purse strings as well as trying to market your services, solutions, and ideas to people in your sub-offices.  So basically it’s a false metaphor because you have all the power in this set-up.

So talk about partnerships. Work with people to identify where the field priorities and your funding possibilities coincide, share opportunities, innovations and trends you are seeing, and listen to what your field staff have to say also because a lot of cool ideas come from them too. If you do that, then bienvenue.

Be careful using the term Return on Investment. Development is about behavior change at different levels. When you want to know the ROI for a program designed to improve gender equality, community empowerment, promote peace or the like, people are just going to make stuff up. Social change is not immediately measurable and tangible. Don’t talk about ROI as if social change is as simple as some concrete inputs and outputs and viola. Development is not a product you’re making in a manufacturing company. Think about how social change works in your own society/country. Things take time and you need to realize that.

You can use the term evaluation. Most people on the ground are happy to talk about evaluation – they want to be evaluated, because it tells them where they can improve and if they are getting it right. They’ll groan over the time it takes away from their unbelievably heavy daily workload, but for the most part, they want to know the results that their work is having. However, impact takes time. Don’t talk about evaluating impact until enough time has passed for there to actually be impact.

So learn the language, but even more importantly, learn what terms like “partnership” actually mean to people. Learn how non-profits see things. It will make your job a hell of a lot easier. People will trust you more, and maybe they will learn some of your ways too, and soon they will be almost as slick and snappy as you. Almost.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the past 15 years. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest or contribute a topic, hit me up. What do corporates do that really bugs you?


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

5 responses to “This is for my Corporates. Lesson 1: Watch your language

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