David Brooks of the New York Times wrote on February 4 about the sociologist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Just before World War II, he emigrated to the United States and began teaching at Harvard, converting his lectures into English. But he had a problem. According to Brooks:
He noticed … that his students weren’t grasping his points. His language was not the problem, it was the allusions. He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.
“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”
In the same article, Brooks refers to Professor Michael Allen Gillespie of Duke University, whom he paraphrases as saying “American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. … Gillespie appreciates the way sports culture has influenced American students too. It discourages whining, and rewards self-discipline. It teaches self-control and its own form of justice, which has a more powerful effect than anything taught in the classroom.”
So that’s it. The code is broken. We in the nonprofit sector have been describing our work in earnest and serious ways, when the world was thinking sports. We don’t talk the sports lingo well enough.
It’s ironic, since so much of what we talk about is really “inside baseball” and so arcane no one can understand what we’re talking about. Maybe we need more talk of home runs out of the ballpark when we have a successful program. Or asking for patience when we’re only hitting singles. Could we say our programs are in the red zone when we’re at a critical moment? Successfully completing a phase of a project could be moving the chains. Nearing the end of a program could be first and goal.
How many times have you heard someone described as not a team player? And when was the last time you heard of an executive director taking one for the team? Development directors get it. They’re always talking about more shots, more goals. And how many times have you thrown a Hail Mary pass to a funder? Maybe even tried swinging for the fences with the audacity of hope.
We’ve got as much passion as any rabid fan. I think we can make this work.
The preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff, Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.