As stakeholders in the non- profit community, we should carefully consider the metaphors we use to describe the current economic environment. According to language researchers, metaphors are not just phrases that make our language more interesting but also mechanisms that shape how we think. The metaphors we use, then, can exert tremendous influence on others’ perception of the world. In turn, these perceptions frame goals and beliefs about possibilities, which translate into action or the failure to act.
So what are the prevailing metaphors used to describe the current financial crisis? Ask just about any nonprofit stakeholder to describe how the economy has affected nonprofits, and you’ll likely hear some variation—overflowing with figurative language—of the following response: “We’re in the midst of the perfect storm, and we need to tighten our belts to maintain our fiscal health and avoid the precipice that awaits many nonprofits.” These metaphors appear frequently in industry articles, research reports, and conversations among stakeholders in the nonprofit world. As descriptive devices, these metaphors seem appropriate and effective to convey nonprofits’ current economic situation. But they also depict nonprofits in a dire situation from which they may not recover and offer few solutions to the challenges nonprofits face.
As a result, the key problem with such metaphors is that they can generate unintended outcomes that fail to address nonprofits’ plight or that entrench nonprofits’ vulnerabilities. They can encourage a picture of powerlessness against which nonprofits are too weak to prevail.
So at one level, the purpose of this article is to generate awareness and conversation about the various metaphors we use to describe the current economy and their respective implications. This article unpacks some of these metaphors and their potential to undermine positive approaches to present challenges. Finally, “Hopeful Metaphors for the Financial Downturn” on page 60 proposes new metaphors that can promote proactive approaches to our economic plight. At a deeper level, this article strives to promote metaphors that encourage fundamental change within organizations that most need it.
Cultivating Change, not Complacency
Part of the problem with our current metaphors is that they can discourage nonprofits from taking action and can engender inertia. According to Chronicle of Philanthropy writer Ian Wilhelm, for example, many nonprofit experts believe “charities and foundations are too complacent in the face of the [current] economic upheaval and only a few have embraced the radical thinking that is needed to maintain, and potentially strengthen, the nonprofit world.” The notion that the current economy will tolerate complacency by assuming that the conditions are simply a passing phase is possible—anything is possible—but it is not probable. The rules of the nonprofit game have fundamentally changed—the third sector now involves new levels of accountability, transparency, and creative collaboration as well as limited resources and mounting demand—and only those players able to play by these new rules will be allowed to continue. For other organizations, it may simply be “game over.” And the prospect of nonprofits closing worries me, because our communities need nonprofits. With this article, my greater intention is to challenge complacency where needed and encourage “radical thinking” that can strengthen the nonprofit world. I propose that a powerful way to accomplish this goal is through well-crafted, shared metaphors that can catalyze necessary change.
The most effective way to change a system is to change how people perceive their world. As Meadows states, “People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.” Following Meadows’s lead, I would add that people who manage to intervene in paradigms at the level of metaphors likewise hit a leverage point capable of transforming paradigms. What is at stake with metaphors, then, is not a claim to who can sound the most creative;? instead it is about who has the ability to claim meaning and thereby make sense of what is going on in the world and how to respond. Change a metaphor, change a paradigm, change a system.
The system considered in this article is the nonprofit community at large. The specific paradigms bein