October Word(s) of the Month: Goals vs. Objectives

Goals. Objectives. What’s the difference? And do you need to care?

If you care about your nonprofit being successful then, yes, you need to care. You know that setting appropriate goals and objectives are key to the success of your nonprofit’s initiatives, and your nonprofit as a whole. Because you can’t save the world without a plan!

And according to the Claxon Method, if you’re not clear on your goal, you can’t identify your target audience, and then your messaging risks running amuck. And, although amuck is fun to say, it’s not strategic to do.

That’s why this month, we’re diving deeper in the meanings of goal and objective. We wanted to know: Can we glean anything useful by looking at the history and evolution of these two seemingly similar words?

Let’s start by looking at how we use these today, especially in the business world:

Goal: An overarching aspiration that guides your decisions.

Objective: The smaller, measurable steps that get you to your goal.

For example, the goal of your nonprofit organization may be to end homeless in your city. An objective may be to increase the amount of affordable housing in your city by 50% within 5 years.

Makes sense.

While these words both evolved at different times and in different ways, the definition is basically the same: A destination. Maybe that’s why people use them almost interchangeably.

But it’s worth understanding where these two words came from and, therefore, how they are distinct from one another.

It turns out goal has a longer history than its cousin objective. According to Etymology Online, it first appeared in a poem in the early 14th century as gol, indicating a boundary or limit. The interesting thing? That poem was the word’s only known appearance until a few decades later, when it started to show up as “the endpoint of a race”.

So goal has its roots in sports. Obviously, there’s still a lot of goal-talk today in sports. But when did it evolve to also mean a purpose, or something to strive for, outside of a sport?

Most likely, somewhere around 1960 when the word’s frequency in written communications began to increase drastically:


Why the increase? Dunno exactly. But there’s no denying it became in vogue to have/use/write about/talk about having goals. Cuz, #LifeGoals.

In comparison to goal, objective hasn’t been around as long. It appeared as an adjective in 1610 as the counter to subjective, meaning simply “in relation to its object”. Only much later, in 1855, did it start to indicate “unbiased and quantifiable”. (If you’ve ever put together a research study or survey, you’ll know this usage well.)

The usage we’re interested in for this post, meaning “aim or goal” came about much later. In 1881 to be exact. Objective point is a military term used to describe a place upon which to focus a troop’s attention. The stand-alone objective (minus the point) evolved from this usage.

So, whereas goal sprouted from a general boundary or endpoint in a race, objective is rooted in military strategy. Could this be why objectives are smaller and more measurable than goals? In military strategy, your overall goal may be to win a war, and its the objective points of individual troops that will get you there.

I can’t say for sure if this is the case. But I can say that being mindful of the difference between goals and objectives, and having both for your organization make you and your nonprofit more successful. And your messaging more remarkable!

Side note: According to The Wordifer, goal is one of those words that nonprofits use too darn much in their external communications. Yet, its cousin objective isn’t nearly as prevalent. If you think about it, this makes sense. When we’re communicating our nonprofit’s purpose to the world via our website, we’ll often speak of our end goals, and not the objectives that carry us there. However, if your goal is to inspire trust in your supporters — and it should be — you might way to share your objectives as well.

Is your writing about expression or impression?

Old vintage typewriter, close-up.

Recently, I asked if your writing made people dream or think? I advocated for a combo meal–sometimes writing to make people think and sometimes to make them dream. Depending, of course, on audience and context, and where someone was vis-a-vis the Engagement Cycle.

Now I want to ask you this: is your writing simply an expression or does it, in fact, make an impression?

Umair Haque–economist, author and super smart dude–thinks it’s only about expression.

Umair Haque, writing

[If you don’t know Umair, he’s da bomb. He’s thought-provoking and insightful and has a way of making you re-think your world that is both frightening and liberating.]

For certain types of writing, Umair may be spot on. But when it comes to nonprofits and writing, the goal should be to express so that you impress. Anything less is time wasted.

There’s an opportunity to cost to writing, i.e. if you’re writing, you’re not doing something else. Nonprofits are trying to do so much with so little that opportunity costs are even more pronounced.

  • If you’re the Executive Director of a small nonprofit and you’re writing a grant, you’re not spending time with donors or meeting with program staff to fine-tune your after-school program.

All of the above-mentioned activities are critical. So if you’re spending time writing–whether it’s a grant, or web copy, or a blog post, or notes from a recent donor meeting, or whatever–that writing should get you somewhere. It should be good enough to impress the people–donors, volunteers, elected officials, advocates, board members, staff–who matter most to your organization at a given point in time.

As with all other activities your nonprofit takes on, writing should be about impact. It should be about moving people along the Engagement Cycle. It should elevate and advance your mission and your work. Anything less is simply expression without impression. 

Some resources to help you write impressively:

  1. The Wordifier helps you amplify your words.
  2. This post gives you tips for error-free writing.
  3. And Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course will guide you to words that will definitely impress.


Are you making them dream or think?

nonprofits, writing, language

“There are two types of writers: those who make you think and those who make you dream.” ~ Brian Aldiss

This is the opening quote in Paulo Coelho’s wonderful article, “On Writing”.

I love this quote. It begs the question: which is the better type of writer?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It’s largely personal preference. I contend there’s too much thinking and not enough dreaming going on these days (and I’m not quite sure where all of our thinking is getting us in many cases, to be quite honest…).

So, for me, writing that makes me dream is downright dazzling. It opens up my world and my heart.

But I also value a well-written piece that makes me think, or reflect, or sets me straight on my facts and figures.

I also think it’s not an either/or. Good writers can make us think and dream. Maybe not at the same time. But in equal measure and when the time is right for one or the other.

Now, you may cringe at the thought of writing and want to declare, “I am not a writer! Let The Writers (big ‘W’) do the writing.”

It’s highly likely, however, that you churn out words every day. So whether or not you consider yourself a writer is largely irrelevant.

What is infinitely relevant is figuring out how to make your words work for you. 

On this blog, you can find lots of practical tips on things like making your writing flow better and making your editing error-free. You can play with the Wordifier and find the very best words to amplify your words. All great resources and tools.

But none of them can answer the question about whether you’re writing to make people think or dream. You have to decide that for yourself. And it’s worth asking every time you sit down to write: will people respond to this because it speaks to their heads or their hearts?  (Hint: It’s usually the latter, rather than the former, especially for donors. Don’t believe me? Check out this and this.)

Heads think. Hearts dream. We need both to make the world go ’round. Write accordingly.

Is ‘community’ a lousy word or what?

architecture*A Super Quick Primer on Content Words and Function Words*

Content words give meaning to the contents of what we’re saying. They make it possible for us to create a mental image.

Function words make our sentences grammatically correct. They give us structure. Examples include riveting words like: a, an, and the.

We need both. Our brains don’t notice function words. Their job is to be like language ninjas–to get the job done without being noticed. So, from the perspective of using language to stand out from the crowd, content words are where it’s at.

Now back to the question at hand: is ‘community’ a lousy word?

Our research revealed that nonprofits use the word ‘community’ more than any other content word.

When you clack it into the Wordifier, you’re going to get a big ol red light that tells you to stop using it because it is sooooooooooooooo overused viewers of your website won’t notice it. So, in that way, yes, it’s a lousy word.

What’s a community-focused organization like you to do? You’re going to have to use the darn word at some point.

Think like an architect.

If you’re building a house, you have to have a foundation, walls, supporting beams, a roof, windows, etc. But there’s wide latitude in how an architect puts these elements together.

Ditto for how you talk about your organization. If you’re writing a sentence, you’ll need nouns and verbs and function words. If you’re focused on your community, at some point you’re going to have to use that word. The question is: what can you surround the word with to make it stand out?

What do you really mean by community? Do you actually mean neighborhood? Or maybe you mean your school community?

Can you add an adjective to qualify it? Maybe spunk up the sentence with (gasp!) an adverb?

Don’t just write your sentences–architect them. Bring the elements together strategically for maximum effect.

FYI: We cover this in much greater depth in Claxon University’s course Words on a Mission. Go here and you can preview the course!

Conjunction Junction & the All-Powerful ‘And’

Language Lab podcast, free tools, nonprofits, language, words, messagingSmall words matter. They can be oh so powerful. Yet they bounce off of our lips so quickly that you hardly notice them. But notice them you should!

Take for example the humble ‘and’. How many times in a day do you use it? How about ‘but’? Both have three letters. Both have two consonants and one vowel. Both are used primarily as conjunctions. And that’s where the similarities end.

And brings people, things, thoughts, ideas together. But pushes them apart. And is packed with positivity. But drips with negativity.

Take three minutes and contemplate the All-Powerful And with me in this week’s Language Lab podcast.

[If you’re like me, you totally want to listen to Conjunction Junction right about now…here you go.]

And for those of you who like to read your poetry, rather than listen to it, here is the excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book The Naked Now that inspired this week’s podcast. (Many thanks to Julie Lombardo for sending this my way!)

“And” teaches us to say yes
“And” allows us to be both-and
“And” keeps us from either-or
“And” teaches us to be patient and long-suffering
“And” is willing to wait for insight and integration
“And” keeps us from dualistic thinking
“And” does not divide the field of the moment
“And” helps us to live in the always imperfect now
“And” keeps us inclusive and compassionate toward everything
“And” demands that our contemplation become action
“And” insists that our action is also contemplative
“And” heals our racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism
“And” keeps us from the false choice of liberal or conservative
“And” allows us to critique both sides of things
“And” allows us to enjoy both sides of things
“And” is far beyond anyone nation or political party
“And” helps us face and accept our own dark side
“And” allows us to ask for forgiveness and to apologize
“And” is the mystery of paradox in all things
“And” is the way of mercy
“And” makes daily, practical love possible
“And” does not trust love if it is not also justice
“And” does not trust justice if it is not also love
“And” is far beyond my religion versus your religion
“And” allows us to be both distinct and yet united
“And” is the very Mystery of Trinity

A Super Easy Way for Nonprofits to Replicate the #IceBucketChallenge

ALS Association, #IceBucketChallengeThe success of the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge is a sight to behold. Everyone from Bill Gates (who has a much better sense of humor than he is given credit for) to Matt Damon (who uses toilet water cuz he’s the co-founder of water.org and a marketing genius) is getting in on the action. It has generated tons of buzz and so far raised $94 million. #Yowza

It’s obvious that part of what made the #IceBucketChallenge a success is its exceptionally high fun factor and that it was easy, i.e. people were instantly engaged. Who wouldn’t want to see Laura pour a bucket of ice cold water all over W, after all?!

The ALS Association are making it super easy for people to get in on the fun. So long as you have water, ice, a bucket-like container and a way to take a video, you’re set.

Put another way:

Fun + Easy = Successful Engagement

If we know this combo works, why oh why are nonprofits using boring, convoluted language to talk about their work? Doesn’t make sense.

Yes, I’m going to harsh on Mission Statements. Again. Remember this list of Mission Statements that were un-fun and technically incomprehensible? Mm-hm.  That list. The one that sparked our Worst Mission Statement contest.

But it’s not just nonprofit Mission Statements that make people nod off. We did a survey of 384 nonprofit websites and learned that, of the 250,000 words in the English language, nonprofits are only using about 1,000. Gimme a B-O-R-I-N-G.

Totally fine to try your hand at creating something as successful as the #IceBucketChallenge, but seeing if you can use language that’s fun and easy-to-understand would be a worthy challenge as well!

Want to win prizes for spunking up your Mission Statement? Enter to win our Worst Mission Statement contest by 8/31!

Really? Really.

This is the latest post from our word-nerd-erific inter, Vicki

Really? Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Sky, Clouds and Sunburst.

I have a love hate relationship with the word really. There are times when it is great.

Thank you very much.
Thank you, really.

Both sentences use an intensifier on “thank you” but the sentence with “really” feels more, well, real. I like that the thing it is highlighting is the authenticity of the sentence. There are many times when really is a fabulous word choice, but I have two issues it.

First, I over use it. Grossly. I annoy myself with how often I say “really.” To deal with this problem I search for every instance of the word really when editing and make sure it needs to be there. It’s at the top of my editing checklist.

The other issue I have is something I learned while editing it out. Really, like other intensifiers, often hides vagueness. As the term implies, we use intensifiers when we want to make a statement more (you guessed it) intense.  However, if the statement needs more intensity, it deserves more than just an extra word slapped on. In these instances, figure out why you need to make your words intense. Is there a more specific word or do you need to elaborate?  I’m all for parsimony, but sometimes you need a few more words to make your point.

Let’s revisit our example from above and look at the term “Thank you.” Imagine you’re thanking a new volunteer at your organization’s soup kitchen.

Thank you. We were able to feed fifty more people because you helped today. The kindness and patience you gave our clients show that you share the values that motivate us all in this work. I know Penny appreciated your help with that tray.  She hesitates to ask so it was sweet of you to jump in and offer assistance.

There are no intensifiers in that version, but it has a stronger impact because I’m showing the connection to the mission and core values as well as giving some personal detail.

Look for places where you are using intensifiers in your own writing. How many can you replace by being more specific?

Looking for more tips on “Thank you?” Erica has a few posts on the topic. This one is my favorite.

Thinking of creating your own list of things to check for when editing? You may enjoy Tessa’s post on editing checklists.

Never Say You’re Sorry

This is a post from our super smart intern, Vicki.

I am sorry

“I’m sorry.” Two words that seem powerful, but are really pretty lame.

To fail is human. The time comes when even the best of us have to own a failing, but promise me you’ll never say you’re sorry. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t own up to your mistakes. I am saying “I’m sorry” is a terrible way to do it.

Apologies are important. Let’s look at how to do them well.

In crafting your language, be clear on the type of failure you are addressing. There are two types of failures: routine failures and serious failures.

  • Routine failures should not be apologized for. You are amazing, but you don’t have superpowers. You can’t keep equipment from breaking down or keep key volunteers from moving away. Apologizing for things like this builds the expectation that everything should always be perfect. Don’t do that.The only way to avoid ever failing is to never try anything. Without trying things, you can’t find new and better ways of doing things. So trying is good and failing is to be expected. But don’t apologize simply because something you try doesn’t work out.
  •  In some cases, the failure is more serious. Situations of mismanagement or ethical breaches require genuine apologies. The more grave the need for an apology, the more reason to plan it carefully.

As you can see, in either case, a knee-jerk “I’m sorry” is vague and ineffective. So how can you address the issue (which is important to do) without saying you’re sorry since that’s vague and ineffective? By following these steps:

The building blocks of an effective apology:

  1. In any communication plan, the first step is to be clear on what your goal is. Each situation is different, but the core goal is restoration. You need to restore trust. In the immediate aftermath, many people simply want the painful repercussions of failure to stop. Not only is this goal shortsighted, it focuses you on the wrong person: yourself.
  2. That brings us to the second step. Focus on who you are speaking to and their needs. They don’t need to see you grovel and cry. They need to feel confident that the situation will get better.
  3. How can you give them hope? By sharing your plan. The third step of your messaging plan is where you get to shine. Tell them where things went wrong or at least how you are investigating the source of the problem. If the failure involves an ethical breach, identify the values that have been violated and express the organization’s recommitment to those values. Tell them what procedures you are putting in place to keep this from happening again. Tell them how great things are going to be when you are done. Be specific. Be positive.

Does the What, Who, How structure of this post look familiar? If so, pat yourself on the back. You’ve been paying attention! What, who, and how make up the core components of the Claxon Method and the 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree. We usually talk about applying the Claxon Method to marketing action plans, but you can apply it to all sorts of things.

For a beautiful example of effective communication about failure, check out Splash’s fail log.They link to it from the front page of their website, and they are right to be proud of it. When I see an organization handle failure like a champ, I trust them all the more.

5 Very Bad Assumptions Nonprofits Make About Language

EricaMills2014 resized
Thanks for hosting, AFP Bellingham!

Last week, I spoke at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference and at a training up in Bellingham, WA hosted by AFP Washington (that’s about 90 min north of Seattle for you non-NW readers).

We talked about five very bad assumptions most nonprofit folks make about language and how to shift those assumptions to increase your impact. Here they are:

  1. You are the center of the universe: Whether or not that’s true, if you want to engage supporters in your mission, shift your language to make it about them. (Hint: Liberal use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ will do the trick.)
  2. Answers are more important than questions: Nope, questions are where it’s at. When you hear someone’s questions, you know what they’re interested in. So shift your approach so you proactively invite questions.
  3. You’re being strategic with your words: Unless you’re crystal clear on what success looks like, and who you’re trying to reach with your words, you’re not being strategic. Shift to a habit of always being clear on whose ears need to hear your message. The 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree poster (which you can see in all its glory in the picture above) can help you make this shift.
  4. People can understand you: Um, not if you’re using jargon and fancy phrases. Knock that off! You want to shift so your language is free of jargon and fancy phrases. That makes it easy for people to understand you and repeat what you say.
  5. Nouns are more important than other parts of speech: Yeah…no. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again–verbs are where it’s at! You’ll do yourself and your organization a big favor by shifting to a verb-first approach to language.

There they are–the five assumptions and the shifts you should make if you want to use language to make the world a better place!


Better Verbs–Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practices[This is the latest installment in our#WordsThatWow series. You can read the others here and you can download the infographic here.]

Verbs are very important. They are action words. They are the superheroes of every sentence. They speak directly to the change you want to create in the world.

And yet most nonprofits focus so much energy on defining their nouns–people, places, and things–that by the time they get to picking a verb, they’re all out of energy. Enter the verb ‘provide’.

Provide is such a handy verb–so flexible, so malleable, so ubiquitous.

It is its ubiquity that will be its demise (I hope).

If you’re looking to use your words to stand out from the crowd, provide is not your best bet. In fact, it’s totally lame. Everyone is providing a bunch of stuff all over the place. Booooooring.

I wish I could tell you what the very best verbs are for you. But I can’t. I can’t because it’s not for me to say what verb represents the change you’re making in the world.

Having seen the difference changing verbs has had for thousands of organizations, I can assure you that using better verbs will make it easier for you to engage people in your work. And that’s what all this ‘using  words to make the world a better place stuff’  is all about, right? Right.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?