Community Foundations playing with their verbs

words, messaging, community foundations, philanthropy
Playing with words is fun!

Yesterday, I invited staff and board from Washington state’s community foundations to think differently about language. To play with words.

The group spent much of its time trying to find their verb. That’s right: their verb. Verbs are where it’s at. They are “the part of speech that expresses existence, action or occurrence.” Anyone who wants to inspire people to action and engagement should be downright obsessed with their verbs.

In English, we’re very focused on nouns. People, places and things. Those are important too. But when you focus too much on your nouns, your verbs get short-shrift and you end up with a wimpy verb, like ‘provide’. You can do better.

What struck me yesterday was how much community foundations are like philanthropic cruise directors. Julie on The Love Boat knew everything that was going on and could therefore recommend the perfect activity for each guest. Ditto for community foundations (only minus the boat). They know everything going on in their communities and can therefore direct people to where their investment can have the biggest impact given their interests.

At the end of our session, I suggested that their verb was ‘direct’ and that they spend some time playing with the following core message:

We direct money to where it can make the biggest difference in our communities. 

For the balance of the convening (they had another 24 hours to go after our session), their task was to edit that sentence. To see what stuck with them. What didn’t feel right. To play with it.

I confess that I gave them a bit of a toughie. I wanted to see if anyone would notice that, as stated, their verb (i.e. the action for which they want to be know and that they are uniquely positioned to act upon) focused on a feature (i.e. directing money) rather than the benefit. If you were to rearrange and introduce a different verb first, you would get something like:

We drive change in our communities by directing money to where it makes the most impact.

Is it a bit longer? Yes. But possibly worth it. It all depends. With this switcheroo, community foundations would in essence be saying they are uniquely qualified to drive change in their communities and the way in which they are uniquely qualified to do that is by directing donors’ money.

In reality, those who aren’t board and staff probably won’t say ‘drive change’ because it isn’t something most folks would naturally say. (“What are you up to day, Susan?” “Oh nothing much, just driving change.”) So they’d still be investing in ‘directing’ as their verb, but it offers an option with the ever-popular and rather effective benefit-feature structure, which is always awesome to have on hand. And can be used in writing.

I don’t work for a community foundation, so I can’t say if these are the right words for them. That’s the thing with words–you have to find your own.  I can only say that, if I did work at a community and was looking for my words, these are some of the ones I’d play with. And then I’d see where they took me from there.





Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?