Language is the most powerful tool we have to communicate our innermost thoughts and ideas, build close personal and professional relationships, and develop a sense of shared identity among cultures and communities.
As Noam Chomsky once put it, “A language is not just words—it’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is.” Being selective, intentional and well-informed about your language choices is one of the best ways to set yourself apart as a professional and as a leader.
Yet, despite the importance of language in the business world, nonprofit leaders aren’t often taught the vocabulary they need to conduct business effectively. For example, you’ll rarely hear phrases like “bottom line” or “stakeholder interests” in the nonprofit world. Even words such as “innovation” and “compensation” are relatively uncommon.
Rather than learning the language of business—and in turn, participating in the world of business—nonprofit leaders are expected to conform to an old-fashioned “charity” model. We are trained to be modest and avoid talking about money as much as possible (especially employee compensation). The model mandates that you limit your business activities to humbly asking for donations.
This approach does not recognize that just like for-profit organizations, nonprofits must sustain themselves financially to survive. We may get a break on taxes, but we still have to make it in the free market, just like any other business. And to survive in the free market, you must understand the language of business.
Think about it: As a nonprofit leader, you’re often interfacing with people in the business world, trying to forge partnerships or raise money. How can you expect to build strong, fruitful connections with these people if you can’t speak their language?
By adapting to the language of business, nonprofit leaders can better position their organizations to succeed in the long term. Given the harsh reality that 30% of all nonprofits fail within the first 10 years, equipping leaders with the right language tools has never been more important.
Consider the term “stakeholder,” which is rarely used in the nonprofit sector. The meaning of stakeholder is simply someone with an interest or concern in your organization—someone who has a “stake” in whether it succeeds or fails. In the context of a nonprofit, your stakeholders would be the individuals, families or communities that you serve.
I would argue that we should be talking about our stakeholders and stakeholder interests a lot more than we do in the nonprofit world. After all, they are the very reason we exist! Compared to stakeholders at a for-profit company, stakeholders at a nonprofit organization typically have far more to lose.
A stakeholder who purchases shares of a for-profit company risks losing stock value if the business fails, but a family who depends on a nonprofit for housing risks becoming homeless if that nonprofit fails.
However, the burden is on the leader to learn the language. Much like a traveler utilizes DuoLingo prior to traveling to a country with a different common language, so must a leader in a sense. Read business publications—Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company are all great sources. Listen to business podcasts, read websites and take notes of the language that is being used repeatedly. Get to the point where the lingo and buzzwords are second nature and part of your own business lexicon.
This is just one example of how nonprofit leaders can benefit from learning the language of business. By applying countless other business terms to nonprofit work, leaders can improve their communication with others.
There are many different ways for nonprofits to amplify their impact by operating more like a business, such as exploring earned revenue and offering competitive salaries. But, perhaps the best place to start is learning the language of business. With a foundation of language in place, you can build your confidence in the business world and begin to form stronger professional connections. After that, the success of your nonprofit will come naturally.