When You Can’t Name Names

[Here’s this week’s post from Tessa, our word nerd-erific intern. You can find all her posts here.]

Yesterday, I was attempting to reduce the large quantities of e-mail I get from companies and organizations in the Seattle area. (I’m moving to San Francisco soon, so many will no longer be relevant to me). After requesting to be removed from a particularly large and well-known organization’s e-mail list for the Pacific Northwest (I won’t name names), I was surprised at the message I got. It started out well, taking me to a place where I could manage my e-mail subscriptions. (Only want to hear about international issues? Great, we can do that!).  So far, I was impressed. And then I hit unsubscribe for the Pacific Northwest List. It

Dear Constituent

took me to a page saying they were sorry to see me go, I could sign up again at any point, etc. And it was addressed “Dear Constituent”. Dear Constituent.

The coldness of this word may not have hit me so hard if I wasn’t a donor to the organization. But as such, it made me feel disconnected, unappreciated and just another “constituent”. Granted, I know they probably don’t have a system to determine which of their e-mail subscribers and donors and which aren’t. And maybe I didn’t enter my name when I signed up. That’s all okay. You can make everyone feel included and welcome, whether or not they have given you money or their name. Here are some alternatives to starting with “Dear Constituent”:

Dear Friend,
Dear Valued Supporter,
Dear Ally,
Sorry to see you go!

Here are some alternatives not to use:

Dear Recipient,
Dear Stakeholder, (More on why ‘stakeholder’ is such a bad word here.)
To Whom it May Concern,

How do you refer to someone in your messages when you don’t have his or her name?

We & Our – Use with Caution [#WordsThatWow]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practices

[This is the latest post in our #WordsThatWow series.]

We. It seems like such a nice word, doesn’t it? Like a big hug. Only it’s a word. A word-hug, as it were. Ditto for ‘our’. 

“We are creating opportunities for girls across our state.”

‘We’ implies we’re all in this together. Working hard to make our state a better place. That’s a good thing,  isn’t it? Yes, it is, but here’s the thing: often ‘we’ aren’t all in this together.

“We’re putting an end to human trafficking.”

“We make sure every kid can become a great reader.”

“We feed our neighbors.”

When you read those sentences, to whom is the ‘we’ referring? That’s right, the organization. And this where ‘we’ goes awry. It’s not about you and your organization. It’s about the people you serve and the people who make it possible.

Often, when using the word “we”, nonprofits actually alienate the very people they want to include. We, us, our and ours (a.k.a. first person plural pronouns) quickly become an exclusive group, with the organization on the inside and donors, volunteers, supporters looking in. (Hence the cliché “us versus them”.)

The good news is: It doesn’t have to be this way. You can use these first person pronouns as a tool to include everyone who plays a part in helping your organization meet its mission.

Check out the phrases Tessa, our word-erific intern, used in a recent thank you letter:

 “We appreciate your commitment to a sustainable future. Together, we will create a world free of environmental injustice.”

Did you catch which “we” was referring to the organization’s staff, and which was including the donor? It’s the same word, but the distinction is in the context.

This is why we, us, our and ours can certainly be used, but should be used with caution. Sometimes, they can be powerful tools to make others feel involved in your cause. But other times, they can make people feel separate from your cause. Pay attention to your context.

We appreciate you reading our blog post. By learning more about language, we can better achieve our missions. (Get it?!)

1,000 chances to make the world a better place

Words, winkies, Wizard of Oz
Be like Dorothy: command your words (or your Winkies) to make the world a better place!

Most of us could be more effective if we paid more attention to the words we use and how we use them.

I’m not talking about big speeches here. I’m talking about day-to-day word choice. I’m talking about what you say when you open a meeting and close an email. I’m talking about which words you use in the executive summary to a new report or the intro to your annual report. I’m talking about talking to donors, customers and anyone else you come into contact with in a given day.

The average adult uses around 15,000 words per day. That means that, on any given day, you have 15,000 chances to make the world—your world, our world—a better place.

You’re a word expert–own it

Whenever someone says, “I’m not good with words,” I cringe. What they’re really saying is, “I never learned what a gerund was in English class and am therefore not ‘good with words’.”


Being good with words isn’t about syntax and grammar. It’s about finding words that give voice to your vision.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell established the 10,000 Hour Rule—basically, that you can become expert in anything after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

This infographic shows how long it would take, in years, to become an expert if you did deliberate practice for a certain number of hours per day. The average is 9.6 years, assuming you practice 20 hours per week.

Here’s how this relates to you being a word expert: Let’s be generous and say you started talking, really talking (meaning stringing together cohesive sentences) when you went into Kindergarten. Even if you zoned out for big chunks of time in school, you were still probably eking out 2 hours of “deliberate practice” per day, five days a week.

That means that, on average, it took you 20 years to become a word expert. Roughly by your mid-20s when, coincidentally, your frontal lobes—the part of your brain in charge of concepts and abstract thinking—becomes fully developed.

In sum: by around the age of 25 you had practiced enough and had the brain development to be a full-fledged word expert.

If you are over the age of 25, the “I’m not good with words” excuse simply doesn’t hold up. So best to stop using it, accept your status as a word expert and start using that expertise to your advantage.

Words are like Winkies

In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West calls on her Winkies to destroy Dorothy and her crew. Winkies are not brave; they are dutiful. They have to do whatever their master says.

When the Winkies’ master was the evil Wicked Witch of the West, they did bad stuff (usually related to killing things). After Dorothy successfully kills the Witch (by accidentally dumping water on her, oops), they do good things because Dorothy is nothing if not nice.

Words are like Winkies—they will do what you ask them to do. They are dutiful. They will serve you well if you use them well. The can help you be a more effective leader and make the world a better place.

1,000 chances to make the world a better place

A key piece to being an expert at something is the intentionality you bring to it, whatever ‘it’ is you are out to master. If your ‘it’ is more effectively using words to give voice to your vision, this means deciding how many of the 15,000ish words you use in a day you are going to use intentionally.

Can you be intentional with 1,000 of your words today? (As a point of reference, this post is about 700.)

This could be in a meeting with staff, or lunch with a donor, or in an email you write to a colleague at a partner organization. Heck, it might be a chat with your accountant or teenager.

Remember: Those words are like 1,000 Winkies waiting for you to give them orders. They are your 1,000 chances to make the world a better place today. 


Why you should be uptight about words

I am often accused of being uptight when it comes to word choice. In France, the quest for le bon mot is a national sport. But I realize I don’t live in France and should lighten up a bit.

The thing is human beings make most decisions in 7 seconds or less. What you do in those 7 seconds, including the words you use, matters.

In 2009, there were 1,928,158 non profits in the United States alone. You have one shot to make a great first impression and to stand out from the sea of organizations, and chatter, and craziness of life.

Could I loosen up a bit about word choice? Well, yeah, personally I could probably stand to do that. But this isn’t about moi and it wouldn’t change the fact that time spent finding words that resonate with the people who matter most to your organization is imperative to your success. That’s not going to change.

Be uptight about–or at least mindful of–your words. Find the right ones. It’s important.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?