Jargon, terminology, and the sorry state of nonprofit consulting

I have a pretty low opinion of nonprofit consultants. Most days I use the sorry state of nonprofit consulting as a rallying cry to be a better consultant myself, but every now and then I wonder whether I wouldn’t be better off working in a social sector organization, rather than trying to shout above the crowded mess of nonprofit consultant stew.

Like a pack of rats, us nonprofit consultants stick together. One such consultant posted an article that popped up in my LinkedIn feed last week decrying the use of jargon in the nonprofit sector. The article this consultant shared, a cross post from a nonprofit marketing blog on Guidestar, railed against the use of terms like “optimize” and “impact”, arguing these terms are nothing more than impressive sounding hot air.

I understand the author’s intent, and to be fair the author does preface his list of “buzzwords” to avoid with the caveat that “If any word on the list is truly the most effective choice for reaching your reader, please go ahead and use it”. But I think ultimately what the Guidestar post illustrates is the difference between jargon and terminology.

Jargon versus terminology

I use the terms “optimize” and “impact” all the time in my work, two no-no’s from the cross-posted Guidestar piece. When I refer to optimization, I use it in the context of linear optimization; one of the analytic techniques we use in my firm’s consulting work. And when I refer to impact, I use the definition from the evaluation academic literature.

To me, these terms are useful as they have precise meanings. Indeed, pretty much every field, from medicine to law to engineering, has its own set of terminology. Terminology is valuable as it provides shorthand for people versed in a particular specialty to speak succinctly.

Terminology becomes jargon when people use terminology because it sounds awesome without knowing what those terms mean. This brings us back to the state of nonprofit consulting and my inner conflict.

Nonprofit consulting sucks

I have a specialized skillset around data analytics, program evaluation, and computer programming. These are skills that are useful to a lot of organizations and take a while to develop (and maintain). However, they are skills that are not that useful to most social sector organizations in a full-time capacity, which is why I started my own consulting firm rather than joining a non-profit.

The blurring of the lines between terminology and jargon allows frauds to hide amidst those with real specializations. Many of these consultants, like wolves in sheep skins, are self-styled marketers posing as program evaluators, “data gurus”, or strategists (my gosh, so many strategists…).

Consultants can be really valuable. There are a lot of specializations that don’t make sense for organizations to employ fulltime, and consulting arrangements allow for people with specialized skills to affordably provide expertise to multiple organizations.

But too few nonprofit consultants are focusing on building skills. Indeed:

The blogosphere, like nonprofit consulting, is full of jargon as real meaning is not easily transferred in short bursts. Skills are developed through time, through significant work experience, reliable research, and professional (i.e. academic) instruction.

Instead of purging terminology from our lexicon, we should instead be expelling those who confuse jargon with knowledge from the social sector.