Does Terminology Affect Scale and Impact?
Nearly 100 companies, development donors, and NGO partners had just finished listening to the opening panel in a two-day workshop we had organized to focus on ways companies could expand economic opportunity for people living at the base of the economic pyramid. The year was 2007, and the CSR Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School was wrapping up a program that had generated nine papers on the topic. Many of those in attendance had contributed experience and examples. As the Q&A opened, the first participant raised his hand.
“You’re the ‘CSR Initiative.’ But is this even CSR?”
We spent the next half hour debating how best to label company efforts to expand economic opportunity, despite our facilitator’s best efforts to shift the conversation back to the why, and more importantly, the how. Did it matter what we labeled this?
In retrospect, perhaps it did. Our field is full of terms intended to communicate relatively new ideas that often combine concepts and approaches from different sectors and disciplines. These are terms that have yet to go mainstream and that mean different things to different people even within our niche. Think “sustainability,” “inclusive business,” and “social investment,” to name just a few.
More and more, we hear from companies, NGOs, donors, and governments that terminology has become “more than semantics”—something that affects the speed and potentially the scale of action and impact.
A blog series this week explores the practical challenges associated with language in the sustainable and inclusive business space.
One large multinational company reports that it now assumes it will take two or three meetings with a possible new partner just to determine whether they are even talking about the same thing. A rapidly growing start-up wonders if calling itself a “social enterprise” in order to tap into the market for “impact investment” might not bias the larger, more traditional investors it might need to scale up in the future. “Corporate responsibility” and “sustainability” professionals talk about the challenge of engaging their operations colleagues in initiatives that create business value and development impact. A prominent development NGO highlights some of the concepts or issues that tend to resurface once corporate partnerships are handed off from sustainability to operations—or from headquarters to business unit, from senior to junior—to implement.
Our contributors offer a number of tips for using language successfully, like taking the time to define the terms that you use, using numbers wherever you can, meeting your counterpart halfway—but expecting them to meet you halfway, too—and using learning agendas to create space to revisit difficult issues. They join the ranks of Business Fights Poverty members in underscoring the importance of translating between “business” and “development” within companies and across sectors. And they stress that language is just the tip of the iceberg. The reason we need to get the language right is to address underlying issues that affect the pace of action and potential for scale and impact—like alignment of objectives, incentives, resources, and accountability structures.
Please enjoy this week’s series, and please comment to share your experiences, tips, and questions. In what kinds of situations, with what kinds of stakeholders, has language been a challenge for you? What are the stickiest issues? How do you resolve or even pre-empt them?
The “More than Semantics” series is supported by the Citi Foundation.