One of the problems people in the nonprofit world have is communicating with the public. We love jargon. For example, when was the last time you talked about “capacity-building” with someone who didn’t work with nonprofits? Is thee a way you can talk about capacity building without using this phrase?
We love using jargon because it makes our work seem important and “scientific.” But Tony Proscio, whose crusade for clear English in the nonprofit world should be supported by everyone, explains it best:
Real people—including real people with good educations and a keen interest in public issues—don’t talk this way. And worse, many of these words are so vague and hard to define that when people do talk and write this way, they end up saying far less than they think.
I was reminded of Proscio when reading this interview with Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen in the Washington Post. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s double-barreled name reminds us that she is connected to two fortunes: her father, John Arrillaga, was a real estate tycoon, and she married tech billionaire Marc Andreessen.
I’ll talk about the Post piece in a minute, but my friend Mr. Wikipedia led me to a hilarious profile of Arrillaga-Andreessen from, of all places, Vogue that deserves hearty and sustained mockery.
The piece is by Jacob Weisberg, who oversees Slate. I normally read Weisberg in the Financial Times, where he alternates between columns that warn that Republicans are a threat and columns that warn of the menace of the G.O.P.
But give Weisberg a chance to earn Conde Nast pay rates and this hardheaded liberal turns into a steaming bowl of mush. Here he is describing his first meeting with Arrillaga-Andreessen:
Willowy and ethereal, she is dressed in a Gucci motorcycle jacket, an Alexander McQueen dress, and thigh-high suede Robert Clergerie boots. Around her neck are two Tiffany crosses she always wears, one a gift from her husband ("my beloved"), the other a reminder of her late mother.
So is Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen pretty?
Catching the attention of young billionaires isn’t hard. Laura has an ease and informality—and her flowing strawberry-blonde hair and grey-green eyes give her the look of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden.
But what about her management style? What’s it like to work at the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation?
When we arrive [at the foundation] after breakfast, she greets everyone with a hug. "We completely blur the lines between personal and professional, and I love each one of our team members like a family member," she says. She begins a meeting by handing out books as holiday gifts and reading a Billy Collins poem aloud. Then she serves a lunch she made herself: an avocado-and-orange salad, an organic green salad, and grilled chicken.
At this point, I began to wonder if this is one of the California stories about blissful people eternally warmed by the pleasant Pacific sun, living on a diet of nuts, flakes, and the nourishing soybean. But Weisberg notes that Arrillaga-Andreessen teaches philanthropy classes at the Stanford Business School, where her students get good jobs at significant West Coast nonprofits, including Kiva, Ashoka, Google.org, and the Hewlett, Moore, and Lucas Educational foundations.
Moreover, according to Weisberg, Arrillaga-Andreessen and her husband have regular pizza and a movie parties with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and she takes credit for persuading Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to the Newark public schools in 2010—even though, as I noted last year, the donation did little to reform the schools except for padding the pensions of senior teachers.
So what advice does this wise woman give the tech moguls? Here’s some of what she told the Washington Post:
- “Philanthropy is at its most meaningful when people are actualizing one of their greatest personal passions—whether it’s intellectual, emotional, or spiritual.” (You can’t just give to causes you like—you have to “meaningfully” give to groups that “actualize” your “personal passion.”)
- “We in the philanthropic sector need to operate not just with glass pockets but glass skulls.” (Like the one Indiana Jones was chasing?) “What I mean by that is that we need to be transparent about where we are giving our money. But that’s only the first step. Of equal, if not even greater, importance, we need to be transparent about why we made the decisions we made so that other people can benefit from that research as well.” (Well, all right, but do you have to use this “glass skulls” metaphor?)
- Millennials are “a generation that has grown up with a sense of global community and awareness that transcends traditional geographic boundaries and also a group that has become grown-ups with data as a key driver of decision-making.” (You mean the one worlders in the 1960s didn’t use all those numbers that came out of their “big iron” computers?)
I decided to investigate Arrillaga-Andreessen further, so I went to her website. Here’s what she says about herself:
I’m an individual philanthropist who’s what I call a "pracademic"—part practitioner, part scholar.
Pracademic? Can we kill this word now, before it escapes and terrorizes the Council on Foundations?
At this point, I felt my blood sugar begin to rise, so I decided to save further investigation of Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen for another day.