(excerpted, in part, from my recently-released book,
The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur)
Plain speaking is not a social sector rule. It’s not even a cultural norm. As change agents, we
are engulfed in gobbledygook and the poison pills of jargon, acronyms and buzzwords—a
fusillade of shopworn words and vocabulary traps. Never in the history of humankind have so
many words created so little social justice.
The hard truth is, if you and I communicate poorly, we trivialize and sideline what we stand for.
Fuzzy communications sabotage our opportunities to win converts and collaborators. If my
dazzling idea is dead on arrival, there is a good chance that I killed it with a bad explanation.
When I fail my cause with crappy communications, I feel the opposite of awesome. I’ve let
myself down and, worst of all, I’ve let down what and who I care about.
Here’s a quiz: which of the following items is least like the others? Diplomatic missions; heroic
missions; mission statements; California missions; space missions; mission figs.
Answer: mission statements. All of the others are, for one reason or another, useful.
Has anyone ever made a funding decision or taken a job based on a mission statement? Have
any of us ever registered for a conference based on its mission statement? Are consumers
reading the mission statements for Boeing, Google or Nike?
To give mission statements their due, debating them is a popular exercise for procrastinating
board members whose time might be better spent fundraising. In fact, composition-by-
committee is a major reason most mission statements are saccharine to the point of indigestion.
Honeyed sentences. Sugared phrases. Whipped cream communications.
If you are forced, against your will, to write a mission statement—write it with exciting, concrete
words; action words that everyday people can understand. For example, instead of a mission
statement like ‘Our mission is to ameliorate global poverty by advancing economic opportunity
with market-based, sustainable solutions for the base of the pyramid’, you and I might be more
turned on by: ‘We create good jobs for poor people who have been royally screwed by the
current economic system’.
Even if you and I eschew mission statements, we still need to tell the world about our
organizations. If you want to gather people and pennies to your cause, you’ll fail unless you can
find words that are concrete and clear enough to get people on board. Veteran social
entrepreneurs speak and write with specificity and modesty. Instead of ‘my enterprise is
pivoting’ try ‘my enterprise is switching from water issues to health issues’. Instead of ‘my
venture is looking for collaborating partners’ try ‘my venture needs a distribution partner to reach
new clients’ or even ‘my venture needs to merge with a deep-pocketed partner to avoid filing for
bankruptcy’. Instead of ‘we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift’ try ‘we’re rethinking our
effectiveness’ (or ‘after a lot of organizational soul-searching, we figured out that two paradigms
equals only forty cents’).
Words are what I use to sanctify my most cherished commitments. Words are how I explain
myself—first and foremost, to myself. Then, words are how I share myself with you. Words are
how you and I understand the largeness of the work, and our small part in it.
Words are how we help others look at the world through our eyes. And, words are how we ask
for help. Because social entrepreneurship and economic development work stands on the
shoulders of traditional community organizing, our most potent message framing puts the other
person in the picture. Instead of ‘support my organization to help us do great things’, we say
‘together, you and I will do great things’. This formulation is more than just a cheesy word manipulation. We use it sincerely because our work involves co-creation, collaboration and community-building.
To change the status quo requires collective action, which is nothing more than lots of
individuals – individuals like you and me – communicating and acting together. When we use
words in a hazy, confounding, complicated way, we violate our promise to be an inclusive social
justice movement. It’s really pretty simple: people can’t participate in social change, social
innovation or social movements that they don’t understand.
A common trope is that social entrepreneurs are ‘the voice of the voiceless’. To the contrary, our
truth is that the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the discarded and the discouraged
must have the power to speak up, speak out and speak for themselves. Until that day arrives,
with the authenticity that comes from our lived experience as change agents, we bear the
burden and the responsibility of communicating our despair and outrage about the overlooked
places where social justice still sleeps.