[Written for the Nonprofit Enterprise Center newsletter–El Paso, TX]
Communication, Rhetoric, and Social Good
Robert Tinajero II
Most involved in non-profit organizations are working to make our world a better place. Whether it is working with children, the elderly, hurting bodies, hurting souls, or the environment, non-profit volunteers, workers, and organizations fight for justice, equality, and hope. And just like any other important phenomenon, non-profiteering is a socially sustained reality. That is, it is made up of real-life people in real-life situations, working together to create and sustain an organization and hopefully working together to create positive change. One aspect of creating and sustaining a non-profit organization, which is many times ignored, is the fact that strong communication skills are important.
From pamphlets, to letters, to memos, to presentations, to e-mails, to websites, to posters, just to name a few, written and verbal communication is at the heart of creating and sustaining a non-profit organization. Too many times the message is lost or mumbled on its way to the audience. This is why it is crucial for non-profits to not only have people with good hearts but people with the ability to translate important ideals into effective presentations of those ideals, whether written or spoken, and to create effective verbal, written, and visual argumentations.
This means that those of you students considering working for a non-profit organization need to take seriously the skills taught in courses such as English and Communications and you should consider college-level courses such as Business Writing, Writing for the Workplace, Technical Writing, and Grant Writing. For those of you who aren’t students, or are already working for a non-profit, there are continuing education courses at UTEP, EPCC, and on-line that focus on writing and communication. Everyone could also benefit from writing manuals that are easily found at Barnes and Noble in the Reference section or on-line. From writing a hand-written letter to creating a complex website, and everything in between, there is helpful information out there.
Speak to people who run non-profits and they will tell you that being able to intelligently and interestingly convey the organization’s message is extremely important. And beyond reaching the general public, communication within an organization is just as important. Thus, good intentions are not always enough when working with a non-profit. Communication skills are just as valuable.
Rhetoric and Social Change
The world is changed one document at a time.
As a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Writing Studies I learned that language and discourse is not simply about basic communication. Discourse is at the center of our lives and is central in the creation of all aspects of human society. From everyday e-mails to new amendments to the constitution, written communication creates the realities around us. Our views on race, family, religion, morality, politics, and even on things like the car we decide to buy, are all influenced, created, and communicated through discourse. Thus, thinking critically about communication goes beyond thinking about proper sentence structure and grammar. Thinking critically about communication involves thinking about the way a message is conveyed, how the message might be interpreted, and how that message could directly and indirectly have consequences in regards to issues of power, equality, and justice.
Below are a few concepts important in the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies which should be important to those involved in non-profit organizations.
A simple definition of rhetoric is “the art of persuasion.” Creating social change not only involves communicating one’s ideals but also persuading others to believe in the same cause your organization believes in. You want to persuade people to volunteer for your organization, to donate money, to march with you, to e-mail politicians, to write letters, to show up at rallies, and to tell other people what your non-profit is doing. All of this involves persuasion. Therefore, a critical thinker and writer is always thinking about how to ethically persuade an audience to agree with and help out the organization.
Kairos is a term used in Rhetoric that basically means “the right thing at the right time.” This means saying and writing the best thing for any given situation. So, we must remember that as non-profits, the way we present our message must adapt according to the audience we are trying to reach. What you say or write in one given situation may not be as persuasive in another situation. Some basic characteristics that may be different from audience to audience can include age, race, class, education, gender, sexual preference, nationality, and ethnicity, just to name a few. We must also understand the situation we are writing for (e.g. letter to the Mayor; speech at a rally; e-mail to supporters; poster at a concert; etc.). We must learn to adapt our discourse for different situations in order to be more persuasive.
Ethos is another important term in the field of Rhetoric and is not easily defined. Ethos kind of means one’s personality/integrity/persona. It is sort of the “vibe” of who you are. A presidential candidate that is always in jeans and sandals is going to give off a different ethos than a candidate who wears name-brand suits all the time. A rock star who is always wearing sweaters and never curses in their music is going to give off a different ethos that a rock star who wears torn and dirty clothes and cusses loudly in their songs. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other, it just means that the person’s personality, integrity, and persona is coming through in the way they dress, speak, walk, act, etc. The same is true for a non-profit organization. The way in which a non-profit communicates their message affects their ethos. From two-sentence e-mails to forty-page grants, the organizations persona is always being displayed. Critical thinkers and writers think about the way in which an organization’s communications affect ethos.
Social Justice and Rhetoric
Finally, as stated before, the critical and reflexive use of discourse is directly involved in social justice. E-mails must be sent, flyers must be passed out, budgets must be presented, speeches must be written, letters must be signed, and laws must be debated and passed in order for real change to take place. A strong heart and tireless work ethic can certainly help those looking to create a better world, but thinking about, and using, verbal, written, and visual discourse is also central to creating positive change. Those involved in the world of non-profits should take this seriously. After all, rhetoric is only empty if you make it that way.
Robert Tinajero II