When you work with words all day, you start to develop strong opinions and Feelings about them. For instance, I love the words “intransigent,” “autumnal,” “evanesce,” “obtain,” and “logic.”
Likewise, there are words I loathe, and most of them are the kind you run into all the time if your a grant writer, like me, in RFPs, advertisements, and “About” pages. Words like “utilize”, “synergy,” “actionable,” “scalable,” “impactful,” “resourceful” (actually, pretty much any time you turn a pithy noun into a active-sounding adjective), and the list goes on.
For one thing, most of these words are substitutes for perfectly good and more simple words, like writing “utilize” instead of “use.” And those that don’t indicate that the writer is frantically shuffling through a thesaurus for a term that sounds more sexy, these words are typically meaningless. What does “actionable” Mean? Okay, yes, it’s obvious what it’s implying, but that’s the problem: it’s implying, not explaining. These words are deliberately vague. They allow the writer the dodge the messy business of actually giving you a detailed account of what’s going on.
The word I hate most, and I think is used far too often, is “innovate” (or any variation thereof… though that’s just ahead of “unique” in the list of words I think no one uses correctly).
This word is used so often by businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and everyone else that it is meaningless. What’s worse is that the concept itself (“new,” “different,” “pioneering,” etc.) has developed a devoted following and cult of personality.
I have noticed in the past few years that more and more philanthropists, businesses, and activists have made “innovation” their central goal. In other words, people have taken up a Gordon Gekko-esque mantra of “Innovation is Good.”
What bothers me about this is that, particularly in the area of philanthropy, more grant programs and prizes seem to be exclusively focused on “innovation.” Certainly, trying something new is a good idea. But in the growing enthusiasm for originality and uniqueness, it seems like people are sacrificing the ends for the means.
Innovation is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. Because of our insistence that everything be innovative, perfectly good and productive projects and organizations are overlooked in the pursuit of the New.
Take Catholic Charities, for example. Sure, they change their programming every so often and check to make sure what they’re doing is working, but generally they are pretty good at delivering social services to people in need because they have been doing it since forever. Or Good Will. Or Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have been operating for decades and are very good at what they do, but there is a growing pressure from foundations and corporate giving programs that being effective isn’t enough. You have to be innovative. You have to be Different and Cutting Edge.
Is Innovation Good? If it leads to better results, sure. On its own, it’s just a buzzword.
This buzzword, however, is becoming a problem. When the obsession with Innovation overshadows the actual work that needs to be done to help people and solve systemic problems, we have left the realm of reality and entered a weird space of entrepreneurial ideology where the definition of Good is being Different-from-the-other-Guy.
Nonprofit service is about addressing a need and creating benefits for society. Anything that advances those causes is good, but praising the means over the ends is like building a house to make a better hammer.