Nonprofit Periscope

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Posts Tagged ‘semantics

What is social impact?

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When the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance chose our next blogging topic, “What is social impact and how can we measure it?” I felt a little sheepish. I had no idea what the prompt even meant. It sounded like such an activist question, and I’m no activist–or at least I don’t feel like one. I warned the group that my answer might be a little skewed. “But that’s the point,” a fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogger said. “Our answers should be different.”

And I felt like saying, “No really, I don’t get it.”

Luckily, my communications brain kicked into gear and revealed “social impact” for what it is: jargon. And I know where I stand on jargon. I loathe it. Every grant application I peppered with “collaboration” and “optimized results” made me feel like a drone. Those words mean nothing. They’re polite currency of the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds that we use to mask an inability to describe our value…or sometimes an absence of value.

Google “social impact.” You’ll get 77,000 wildly different results. Yet we throw it around as if it means the same thing to all of us.

So, with apologies to my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers who actually have definitions for the phrase as is, allow me to present my non-activist, communications-wonk analysis of “social impact.”

“Social impact” is so overused that it means nothing. There must be a more precise term for what it should mean.

From its uses within the nonprofit sector, I gather it’s meant to mean something along these lines: improvement in the lives of people, both as individuals and groups, particularly the underserved. We can rule out environmental causes and animal welfare, since “social” suggests a focus on the common lives of human beings. Yes, animals are “social,” but my best guess is that “social impact” means “societal impact,” ruling out animals that do not share the society of our species. (Animal activists, spare me; I’m an animal welfare advocate myself and I’m just trying to be precise, not speciesist.)

So what improves the lives of people in society? Here are some examples:

  • Physical security
  • Housing security
  • Food security
  • Civil rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • Artistic expression

Not coincidentally, these are all needs nonprofits function to meet.

And we’re not talking about feeding one person or encouraging the expression of one artist. Butterfly effect aside, that’s not social impact; that’s personal impact. So in order to reach a group of people, “social impact” must be elevated from a one-off, case-by-case  approach: it must be systematic. That way it can be applied efficiently and effectively to many people. Certainly the results are personal, as testimonials from clients often show. But they are also social; that is, system-wide.

So what we have is the overused jargon “social impact” that really means three things: systematic social improvement.

And that may well be a more meaningful way to say what we’re trying to say.

That said, if we work in reverse, how can we tell if “social impact”–that is, systematic social improvement–has been achieved?

One takeaway from my graduate degree in conflict resolution is that conflict, like so many other aspects of human life, is never actually about the visible or superficial. In the same way a biologist is trained to focus a microscope on a cell or a physicist is trained to magnify a particle, I was trained to dig below the surface of a conflict and dissect its roots and inner layers. Many of these layers are insecurities, both physical and emotional. So my perspective on measuring systematic social improvement is heavily influenced by this fixation with underlying problems.

For example, can a food bank perform systematic social improvement? No. Food banks  provide food to hungry people, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, and in doing so they reduce or eliminate the physical hunger of their clients. But physical hunger is not the underlying problem. It’s merely a symptom of that problem, which is food insecurity. Yet most food banks exist not to eliminate food insecurity. That’s not a jab at them; it just points to differences in mission.

For strong examples of systematic social improvement, look no further than FareStart and DC Central Kitchen. Both nonprofits share the mission not just of feeding people, but of training them for employment in culinary arts. It’s systematic: both organizations use a consistent approach to training and services. It’s social: it serves a group of people, usually low- or no-income individuals suffering from food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other underlying problems. And it’s improvement: graduates of the training curricula go on to support themselves with culinary employment.

Nonprofits working in public policy are another example: they go to the root of the problem instead of treating symptoms.

Does this establish a hierarchy of nonprofits, with systematic social improvement organizations above all others? Again, no. If, say, food banks didn’t exist, there would be no lifeline to keep hungry people alive while they seek services that will address their food insecurity. If systematic social improvement is like a hospital, then immediate-needs-fulfilling organizations are like ambulances. They reinforce each other. Without systematic social improvement, there would be an endless string of crises–fires to be doused without removing the flammable material. And without stopgap services, many people would not be sustained long enough to find systematic social improvement centers, which are still relatively rare.

So if I actually use the phrase “social impact” (which, granted, does roll off the tongue more easily) this is what I mean: the pursuit or achievement of consistent improvements in the lives of groups of people.

How do you use “social impact?” Can you suggest a better turn of phrase to phase out this jargon?

Written by eclawson

November 16, 2009 at 10:08 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

How to hijack a sector

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How to hijack a sector
I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.
Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.
When journalists throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:
1) Some nonprofits provide health care.
2) Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
3)  Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.
While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.
Consider an opposing WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:
1) Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
2) The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
3) Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)
A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:
“Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
“All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
“The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”
If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. The term “nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do. It’s sterile and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.
However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:
“A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”
And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”
“Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as “a charitable and benevolent institution” whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”
These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.
More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.
The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.

Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.

When news stories throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:

  1. Some nonprofits provide health care.
  2. Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
  3. Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.

While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.

Consider another WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:

  1. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
  2. The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
  3. Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)

A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:

  • “Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
  • “All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
  • “The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”

If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. “Nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do–indeed, almost the polar opposite of it. It’s sterile, and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.

However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:

  • “A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”

And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”

  • “Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as ‘a charitable and benevolent institution’ whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”

These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.

More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.

The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

Written by eclawson

October 22, 2009 at 8:26 PM