Right now I’m a US-transplant living in Berlin, Germany. Most of my conversations start off with something like this, “Ich bin Laura. Sprechst du English? Oder ist Deutsch besser?” Sometimes the person wants to practice their English with me – otherwise, I struggle through my best attempt at German small talk.

But in my meetings for Lean Impact, even when it’s obvious we’re both speaking the same “language”, every conversation I have starts with something like this, “I’m Laura, nice to meet you. Do you speak ‘Startup’? Or is ‘Nonprofit’ better?”

(Okay, I don’t actually say that. But it’s embarrassingly similar.)

At Lean Impact, language across sectors is an important topic because we are trying to communicate from the nonprofit world to the startup/corporate world and vice versa. In this journey, we must think about how we communicate between sectors, not just what we communicate. We must ask, what is the context? What are we trying to achieve by communicating across these two sectors? What is the best way to reach those goals? If we skip this conversation, we’ll miss people with important contributions and we’ll miss people with important things to learn.

Shortcuts and Buzzwords

Different sectors speak different languages. We have our own shortcuts and buzzwords that help us cut corners with people who speak the same language. There’s nothing wrong with lingo and buzzwords in themselves, but if someone doesn’t speak our language, it’s more difficult to communicate about complex topics. For example, I can say ‘internalized oppression’ or ‘ROI’ or ‘prison industrial complex’, and if the person knows what I mean, we can move on. If not, building a relationship and working with that person means – gasp – taking more time.

Yes, gasp. In the world of fast-paced, internet-based communication, things can move way faster. But what are we losing when we move so fast? We lose the chance to learn from one another across difference, and truly work together toward social change. It takes time to build a good relationship, especially one that includes trust across difference, sectors, languages and movements. And strong relationships are the foundation of strong movements.

And remember – taking the time to build a good relationship does not mean losing our urgency to create change. It’s exactly the opposite. Our urgency is still there, but we skip the shortcuts. Because when we take shortcuts, it usually means we only talk to people in our specific field, or people who look like us, or who have the same class background. By silo-ing ourselves, we end up cutting off ideas or information that could help us further our movements.

Understanding Context

In order to get around those shortcuts, it is first important to understand the context within which the conversation is taking place. Within Lean Impact, it might be easy to think that startups and corporations stand on equal footing with nonprofits. That is absolutely not true.

Each sector has different amounts of power and the nonprofit sector has tremendously less power than the for-profit sector. I’m not talking about individual organizations or individual situations, but about the two sectors as institutions. The corporate sector also has power over the nonprofit sector. For example, corporate wealth controls a lot of the agenda of the nonprofit sector through their foundations, corporate giving programs, and through the private wealth of individuals. Nonprofits live and see this power imbalance all the time, and are always working in opposition to it and in spite of it. For corporations, it is not always easy to see a power imbalance that they benefit from. If the corporate world (even the socially-minded corporate world), takes time to understand this power imbalance, they can better understand why it might be difficult for a nonprofit to voluntarily hear advice from a for-profit.

Let’s look at the Fast Food Forward campaign where over 400 NYC fast food workers went on strike last week to demand higher wages (they currently make $7.25 per hour). People are working hard in opposition to fast food corporations and their policy. Because of this, that same group might not want to borrow ideas from the institution they are working against. Paying workers $7.25 per hour is another way of “maximizing profit” and “maximizing efficiency”, so they might run the other direction when they hear “maximizing profit” and “maximizing efficiency” in another context. In my own work, if I’m completely honest, I know that it often takes me longer to trust someone who uses language from the for-profit sector. But when someone takes time to break down their lingo into more simple language (without patronizing), I begin to trust them more and hear their ideas.

3 simple ways to communicate across sectors

Ok, I lied. There aren’t three simple steps. Here are some tips, but it’s up to you to continue learning about the relationship between for-profits and nonprofits so that you can better communicate across sectors.

Attention, for-profit people! Educate yourself on systems of power and how they might play out in interpersonal situations. In this case, that means you, startup world! One important way to do this is to listen more. You might think your idea is brilliant and you need to share it with nonprofits, but when was the last time you listened to how nonprofits were running their organizations? And how they were making change in the world? How can you learn from them? People with power don’t do the best job of listening to those who don’t have power, so as someone in the for-profit sector, try zipping it and opening your ears. Turn a previously one-way conversation into an exchange. This is also important for people who move easily between sectors (especially social enterprises) – what do you gain by being able to speak both ‘languages’? How can you use that power for good?

Attention, non-profit people! Try not to let lingo stop you from listening. Let me say it again – try not to let lingo stop you from listening! Maybe the premise is to make money, but the ideas could help your organization. Yes, the system is broken, but sometimes the ideas are worth a listen. Don’t let a few words about maximizing profit or ROI keep you from thinking outside of your sector’s habits. In cross-sector spaces, try not to use lingo, explain terminology, and ask questions when you don’t understand.

Our promise at Lean Impact is to do our best to navigate language in a way that everyone can hear us. We know that working with people across sectors will take a lot of one-on-one conversations and a lot of hard work, so you’ll see us revisit this topic again.

 Want to learn more? Visit us here.

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