Opinion: Seeping tide of meaningless language

The identity crisis revealed by this magazine's State of the Voluntary Sector 2007 survey among not-for-profits is hardly surprising.

Even the list of what may or may not be part of the third sector is a pretty bizarre collection, taking in as it does the dubious concept of outsourced council leisure centres camouflaged as charities and state services funded by donations, such as air ambulances.

Of course, the Government's flailing attempts to turn the third sector into a political tool of its third way, aided and abetted by the likes of Acevo's ever-eager Stephen Bubb, have not helped.

Neither has the sheer desperation for cash of many charities at a time when the sector has not made the fundraising cake much larger in real terms and has seen strategic failures in payroll giving, corporate philanthropy and more, leaving them susceptible to the lure of the dark side.

Comforting in a way is the sector's vast ignorance about all those multi-million pound initiatives designed to transform it, from ChangeUp to the hubs; could it be that their impact has been confined to the generals and not reached the cannon fodder?

One thing that seems to have trickled down, or at least smeared itself across the sector like a damp kitchen dishcloth infected with E. coli, is a seeping tide of language devoid of meaning. This reveals itself in the staggering mismatch between the public's view of charity and the sector's self-image - akin to the body dysmorphic disorder of bulimic teenagers obsessed with their weight - when the survey asked both groups which of a given list of words best described the sector.

Sector staff seem to have gorged on the fast food of management-speak, leadership coaching, human resources gobbledegook and the kind of mindset that make job adverts sound like estate agents at their worst. Hence their choice of words to suggest the ideal charity, from 'passionate' and 'inspiring' to 'inclusive', 'challenging' and 'visionary'.

The public prefers the clarity and simplicity of 'trustworthy', 'honest', 'helpful', 'friendly', 'effective' and 'supportive'. On only one word was similar importance placed: 'caring'. The survey found that 92 per cent of charity workers believe the public does not understand charities; might it not be that a rather large percentage of charity workers don't understand the public?

- Nick Cater is a consultant, speaker and writer. catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

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