11/27/2006 10:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Translating Between Business and Nonprofit: From "Impactful" to KPIs

Several months ago I began thinking and writing about something I've referred to as the Era of the Translator. Whether organizations or individuals, I began seeing (as others have) that the most vital leadership positions of our time will be assumed by those that are able to work in between sectors and connect the (seemingly) disparate parts of our society. "Translation" in this sense does not refer then to ethnic languages, but rather to the languages and processes of society's pre-existing business, nonprofit, governmental and religious silos - all of which will require ever increasing collaboration in the years ahead if we are to truly enact the positive change so many wish to see in this world. As my work is most closely tied to the business and nonprofit communities, I have seen the need for translation between these two entities most starkly.

The not-as-good news is that there is a lot of miscommunication between these two tax statuses, and in general there is not always a lot of respect from one to the other. Working "for good" is too often little more than a PR buzz phrase at companies, and many nonprofit leaders still neglect the business practices which could make the delivery of their missions more effective and sustainable.

In one example, I recall first hearing the word "impactful" while working with collegiate volunteer programs at universities around the country. On campuses, in nonprofit offices, and in the "social sector" at large, the word is used regularly in conversation and written in emails or program descriptions. I like it and I've used it. It's a good word. Volunteer coordinators, educational directors, and nonprofit leaders I know have all used it to describe the positive effect their programs and services have on the hearts and minds of those who participate in them. There's a couple issues though: ONE) "impactful" is not actually a word. Even now, Microsoft is letting me know it's not a word with a lovely red squiggly line. TWO) Using the word "impactful" doesn't exactly demonstrate a program's impact with objective measurement. Try using impactful with a corporate communications director and they'll probably decipher what you mean...but will do so with a furrowed brow. And furrowed brows are but one way that corporate officers let nonprofit officers know "we think what you're doing is sweet, but (insert condescending remark here)." The nonprofit leader's unspoken retort: "All you care about are numbers and money. What we do can't be measured!"

The good news is that while there is no Rosetta Stone to completely resolve the differences between these two cultures, most translation begins simply with people talking - and there is significant progress being made despite the challenges.

I spent several days earlier this month at the Business for Social Responsibility conference, which is a convening for social responsibility professionals at many of the world's largest companies; as well as for stakeholders in other arenas such as the government and nonprofit sectors. While many of the individuals who hold a position such as 'manager for corporate social responsibility' have significant uphill battles to wage within their companies (sometimes mountainous), the fact that these positions exist at all, and that there is a forum for them such as BSR, is a huge step in the right direction. The fact that the BSR forum also includes representatives from some of the more influential nonprofits and NGOs is perhaps an even bigger step. Additionally, the corporate world is not alone in its move toward the "business equals social responsibility" space.

One need only look at this year's Social Capitalist award winners published by Fast Company to see the ongoing move toward entrepreneurial practices on the nonprofit front. At the American Marketing Association's annual Nonprofit Marketing Conference earlier this year, I met more people from the corporate sector who had "converted" to nonprofit organizations than I did participants who had worked for nonprofits their whole career. This week I spoke with two volunteer directors at a global IT company (named after a prominent celestial body) who came into those positions not from within the company but from the nonprofit sector. In weeks past I've spoken with several others.

These are by no means the first times that nonprofits and companies have worked together - they've been doing so on varying levels for years - but we are now at a point where these fringe encounters and colonizations are prepared to shift foundations on a fundamental level. In some respects we are witnessing the infancy of two civilizations merging - one much larger and resource-rich than the other; though neither more important. Success is not guaranteed, however. The responsible collaboration of these two cultures - a successful post-Thanksgiving dinner, if you will - will require a great deal of translation leadership. Today those leaders are organizations like Ashoka, business moguls like Jeff Schwartz and Jeff Skoll, politicians such as Al Gore and Bill Clinton, and innovative private-nonprofit partnerships like those of AngelPoints and Tomorrow the leaders will be today's twenty-somethings like my friends at Stanford Business School who are already seeing the world "sans sectores."

There is much to do along a very long road, but as happened recently when a nonprofit colleague whispered "...what are KPIs?" during a well known coffee maker's presentation; the translations can most certainly be made. "They're talking about measuring impactfulness."