Usually, my posts and suggestions are connected to my experiences in the charitable sector. Traveling in Southeast Asia last week, though, triggered some thoughts on how we as nonprofits communicate and why volunteers and donors might find our terminology foreign, leaving gaps in their understanding.
My wife and I were celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary with a trip that to Bangkok, Thailand, followed by a visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. While we’d typically fly between destinations, my wife really wanted to see the countryside and suggested we travel from Bangkok to Cambodia by train. Given that the train had no A/C and temperatures were 90+, our compromise was the bus. We had read travel blogs that warned of the potential challenges of crossing by land at the Thai/Cambodia border. These included a range of pricing variations and requirements for entry into the country and of most concern, rip-offs and scams to take advantage of naive tourists and their inability to speak the native tongue.
The first part of the journey went well. We enjoyed the scenery, were relatively comfortable and got to meet a few fellow travelers. At the border, our driver shooed everyone off the bus, using his best English to convey that we should “go through Customs, cross the border, walk to the casino and the bus will be waiting for you." On the ground, in the sweltering sun and dust stirred up by the myriad of motorcycles, bikes, carts, stands selling crispy crickets to snack on, and vendors proposing all forms of assistance and products, we found our way to the Thai customs office and received our outgoing stamp. Easy…and then we went outside and saw not one but at least six casinos lining the border road. Our bus – with all of our luggage and possessions on it - was nowhere to be found.
I'm embarrassed to say that I immediately went into panic mode. I was having visions of the movie "Midnight Express" (though that takes place in Turkey) and a new home and career in the Cambodian casino industry. Fortunately, my wife is the calmer member of our team and after taking some pictures of the border chaos, we wandered around and found the bus, only to be told we could not get back on until we went and found the Cambodian Customs office and got that stamp as well. Actually, this was conveyed through hand signals more than English but that seemed to be the gist of it. Wandering through the dusty road once more, we found this office, got the stamp and were rewarded with clearance to re-board our bus.
We ended up having a fantastic trip and loved seeing Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Beyond that, my momentary scare got me thinking about the charitable sector and the potential for misunderstanding and need for clarity in communication. Here are three thoughts I came away with:
Speak in an agreed upon language: I'll be the first to say that our bus driver was doing his best to speak English and I appreciated it. After all, we were guests in their country. As nonprofit professionals we tend to be very comfortable using our own language (and occasionally lingo) associated with our profession. We're fluent in theories of change, funding objectives and evaluation criteria. But is this the language our volunteers and donors speak? Chances are they'd rather talk in terms of the social movement you're working towards, the change you want to see in the world and what their hard work and dollars can do to make that happen.
Provide translation when necessary: OK, so you're probably going to have to use nonprofit terminology some time and not just when talking to institutional donors. If you have to, then use it to educate and engage your volunteers and donors. As one opportunity, consider inviting volunteers to have a voice in grant or sponsorship proposals. While you're explaining the need to have a theory of change, help them see how vital their inputs (volunteer hours, network connections, funds and/or in-kind support) are to the outputs - real change and the potential to achieve your mission and vision.
Have an agreed upon and specific destination (a.k.a. GOAL): My experience would have been very different if we had agreed upon a more specific destination. Something as simple as we'll meet at 1:00 at the sixth casino on the right side of the road would have worked. S.M.A.R.T. Goals - those that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-sensitive - are the Gold Standard since they leave little room for misunderstanding or confusion. Make sure your constituents are clear on the SMART goals of your organization and their importance in achieving them.
And it's nice to be home...
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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