5 Very Bad Assumptions Nonprofits Make About Language

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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!


Words of Gratitude – Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the last post in our #WordsThatWow series. Read the rest of the posts here.]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practicesI would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. ~G.K. Chesterton

Right, so, here’s the thing–we simply don’t show enough gratitude. By ‘we’, I mean pretty much all of us. Not just nonprofits. Many times in any given day I think, “Dang, I am grateful to that person/ organization/ company/ whatever for that bit of goodness they are putting out to the world.” But thinking it isn’t the same as saying it or showing it. As G. B. Stern said, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”

Words of Gratitude come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s some inspiration!

In short, show gratitude whenever possible. So many people contribute to your nonprofit’s success–donors, volunteers, community supporters, etc. etc. Make sure they know how much you appreciate them. And remember that expressing gratitude not only makes the person you’re talking to feel good, it makes you feel good, too.

Thank you for reading this post!


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.

Stop recognizing your assets

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.]

Your supporters like to be recognized and all nonprofits need assets. So why, you might wonder, did the words ‘recognition’ and ‘assets’ end up on the Use With Caution section of the 2014 List of Words that Wow?

They ended up there because nonprofits are generally doing a lousy job of using them to their full potential. They’ve been de-humanized.

  • Recognition: When you think about recognition, you want to think about it not just as acknowledgment but as “appreciation of the value of an achievement”. You shouldn’t merely recognize your supporters for their contributions of time, treasure and talent–you should be showering them with love and gratitude!  It’s like the auto-magically generated super boring thank you letters that most organizations send out–it goes out, you check off the box, and then move on to the next thing because you’ve technically thanked them. Not cool, people, not cool. There’s no reason for those letters to be boring. What would it look like to truly, fully recognize your donors, volunteers, advocates, fans and supporters for the value of their achievement? Do that.
  • Assets: When you say ‘assets’, what are you really saying? An asset is “something or somebody of value”. When you refer to ‘organizational assets’, you might be referring to dollars in the bank, or computers, or a coffee machine, or some other inanimate object. But sometimes, we’re talking about animate objects, i.e. people. If you’re referring to people–staff, board, volunteers, etc–say ‘people’. Referring to people as assets creates distance, it’s sterile, cold. Unless you want a cold, sterile relationship with the people who are working hard to advance your mission, stop referring to them ‘assets’.  It’s just kind of weird.

In sum: Less recognition of assets. More showering people with gratitude.



Your & Yours – Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the latest post in our #WordsThatWow series. We recently wrote about We & Our. Today, we move to a different set of pronouns that merit your attention: You & Yours. Thanks to Tessa, our intern for writing this post and reminding us of the power of pronouns!]

Some of the best marketing advice I’ve ever received, from Claxon’s own Erica Mills (who was quoting Peter Drury), is this: “Donors don’t give to you. They give through you.”

In other words, people give to you because of the difference you can help them make in the community. You are a conduit. By giving you money, they allow you to rock at what you do–be that caring for kids, feeding the homeless, or fighting cancer. But it’s about the people and places you help–not you, the organization. And yet, many organizations speak and write to their donors as if the organization is at the center of–or is the hero of–the story.

For instance, does this sound familiar? (Imagine a recent donation thank you letter you’ve received, or maybe even sent).

Thank you for your donation to Organization Awesome! We have made huge strides this year. We have successfully implemented three new programs to move our mission forward. But there’s more to be done. In the coming year, we plan to…blah, blah, blah. 

If you write messages like that, your donor will not feel like they’re a part of the change. Why? Because it’s all about you. Not about them and the amazing things they have made possible.

But how about this?

You are amazing! Your recent donation to Organization Awesome has made so much possible for our community. For instance, did you hear about the three new programs we implemented this year? They having a huge impact and we couldn’t have done it without you! Your donation allows us to continue making progress on behalf of the people we serve and the community we all love. With your help, our mission will be achieved. Thank you again.

A simple change in pronouns can make a huge difference. The first example was all about ‘we’ and ‘our’. The second was all about ‘you’ and ‘your’.

This shift in pronouns doesn’t apply just to donation letters; it also applies to any of your messaging. Imagine a conversation in which you are telling someone about your organization. Hearing you and your will show your listener how the cause relates to them, make it more personal, and is more likely to get their attention. For example:

We make Seattle safer and healthier by stopping harmful chemicals from contaminating the air.


We make your city safer and healthier by making sure the air you breathe is clean.

So, go out and get personal! Use your and your as much as you can. If you have someone’s name, use that too. When you make it personal, people are more likely to get and stay involved with your organization.

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?!)

Retention–Use With Caution (#WordsThatWow)

#WordsThatWow, retention rate, fundraising[This is part of our #WordsThatWow series. We covered which words to avoid, and have been looking at which ones to use with caution, including inspireimpact, and advocate. In this post, we look at another word to use cautiously–retention.]

Retention has been on my radar as a word I worry about ever since talking to Super Smartie Peter Drury a few years ago about his ‘Beyond Cash Fundraising Dashboard‘ (a FREE tool that you can and should download).

Then recently, the ever-wise and insightful Tom Ahern (who has a FREE newsletter that you should absolutely subscribe to if you don’t already) asked if we should be focused on retaining or renewing. Good question, Tom!

In the nonprofit world, we often couple the word ‘retention’ with ‘rate’ to get the all-important ‘retention rate’. A higher rate means more donors are giving a second, third, fourth gift to your organization.  This is a good thing. We want more donors giving year after year. The concept isn’t the issue.

The issue is the word ‘retention’ and what it means for the donor experience. When you give to a charity, do you sit back and say to yourself, “Dang, I really hope they retain me.”? Of course you don’t. Retain  means to “keep in one’s possession” or “to be able to hold or contain”. Like a plant retains water. Could be totally wrong on this one, but going to go out on a limb and say most donors don’t want to be thought of like house plants.

Tom Ahern’s suggestion, which is thanks to Penny Harris at Renewable Philanthropy, is to focus on renewal instead of retention. Why? Because renewal “puts the focus on the donor’s desire to continue finding meaning through your mission”. That sounds way better than being possessed or contained, now doesn’t it?

As with all the words in the ‘Use with Caution’ category, I’m not saying never, ever use retention again. I’m simply suggesting that you pay attention to when you use it, what it means and, importantly, how the word might translate into a sub-par, donor-as-house-plant experience for your dear donors.

Say it with me: “Friends don’t let friends treat donors like house plants.”




Use These Words With Caution – Advocate [#WordsThatWow]

#WordsThatWow[This is the next installment in our series explaining each of the words on our 2014 List of Words that Wow. Last time, we covered inspire and impact. Next up in the “Use with Caution” category is advocate.]

Advocate. It’s a word oft used in nonprofit work. Many of us may see ourselves as advocates for certain people or for the environment or for an animal that risks extinction. When asked what we do, many of us could (and would) start our sentences with, “I advocate for…”

When you use the word advocate, you likely want your listener to conjure up images of someone taking action and speaking up. It feels energetic and on the right side of justice.

The problem is, advocate–as a word–doesn’t really do that much for you. Advocate (the verb) means to “plead the case of another”. An advocate, therefore, is someone who pleads the case of another. Setting aside the fact that some people may interpret advocate as a euphemism for lobbying, which nonprofits know potentially gets you into sketchy territory, pleading just isn’t that compelling.

To those not immersed in the world of advocacy, advocating sounds, well, kinda dull.

Instead of being an advocate who advocates, be a champion who champions. It sounds fresh and new because it hasn’t been overused. And that’s really what we’re going for here. To get your cause noticed, you don’t want to talk about it in the same way that everyone else is, right? Right.

If ‘champion’ feels too “I just won an Olympic gold medal”, remember this: it’s always better to show what you are doing than to say that you are doing it. For instance, “We advocate for homeless populations” is not as powerful or descriptive as “We’re fixing the fact that more than 1,000 kids have to sleep on the street every night”.

If you only have a few words to tell people what you do, don’t plead. Say something that will compel them to action.

Use These Words with Caution – Part 1 [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the next installment in our series explaining each of the words on our 2014 List of Words that Wow. We covered the ‘Never Use’ category. Now were moving into the ‘Use with Caution’ ones. It’s a long list, so we’re going to split this into a few different posts. First up, inspire and impact.]

Inspire: Inspirational quotes flood our Pinterest boards, Facebook walls, and desk calendars. Artists need inspiration to create, entrepreneurs need inspiration to succeed, and many of us need inspiration to feel fulfilled in our lives. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, right?

Absolutely. It’s for this reason that many organizations are excited to use it in their mission statements. “We inspire change.” “We inspire hope.” “We inspire (insert group of people here).” I’m sure you’ve heard all these before.

And these phrases sound nice. But stop and think about them. Is “inspiring change” the best way to convey what your organization does, especially if you only have a few words to do it? This phrase could apply to the vast majority of nonprofits out there. It doesn’t make you stand out, or even sound very interesting. Your words should reflect the awesome and unique organization you are.

If you are adamant about using the word inspire, make sure you are not using it as a means to an end. Nine times out of ten, it’s not enough to simply inspire. Be specific about what you are inspiring people to do (and maybe even how you’re doing it). Show how the inspiration you are causing makes a difference in the world. For example, “We inspire youth to become leaders.” can change to “We inspire youth to question status-quo policies and lead their communities to progressive change.” Sure, it’s a few more words, but it’s a much more memorable and accurate description of your organization.

Impact: Like inspire, impact is a word that doesn’t mean much on its own. Your organization is impacting lives. So what? How are you impacting them? When you answer this question, my guess is that you’ll find you can remove the word impact from the equation completely.

So, the next time you’re about to tell someone that your organization is inspiring change or creating impact, stop a moment. What are you really doing?

Stop Using These Words [#WordsThatWow]

#WordsThatWow, infographic, messaging, nonprofit, non profitWhen we released the 2014 List of Words that Wow infographic, we promised to explain why each word was on there. So here we go…first up, those in the “Never Use” category.

Some of these words are likely near and dear to your heart. Will it be tough to not use them? Yes.Will it be worth it? Yes.

Capacity-building: Not only does it sound painful to build capacity, it’s unclear what’s better in the world if you do end up with more capacity. Can you feed more families? Will more trees be protected? Will kids be better at math or science or reading or the arts? You build capacity SO THAT something else is possible. In the near term, that something else is often something like sturdier databases, or more functional space, or better trained staff. Sexy stuff. (Not!) It’s what those things make possible that’s compelling. Not the capacity to do it.

A note on that special category of organizations we affectionately call “capacity builders“: We love you. You do the un-glamorous work of making it possible for other organizations to do what they do faster, better, more efficiently, more effectively, more awesomely. You have the tough task of making that work sound compelling. And, to the un-initiated, it’s not immediately obvious why this work is compelling. For most of you, what’s compelling isn’t your ‘what’ (e.g. building websites or revving up volunteer programs), it’s your ‘why’. Even if eventually you get into the weeds of what you do and how you do it, frame that up by talking about why the work is important as it relates the organizations you work with. Talk about their mission and how your work fits into it. Then go into the specifics of the work itself. And when you’re hanging out with other capacity-builders, go again and use the jargon-y term ‘capacity-builders’. Heck, you might even want to have a secret hand shake (or maybe you already do). But when other people are around, stop it. Simply say, “We work with nonprofits so they can do what they do more efficiently and effectively. We do that by…'”

Innovate: “To innovate” means to make new. It does not mean ‘make better’ or ‘spiffy’ or ‘kinda sorta different than everyone else’. It means new. Totally new. The rampant use of the words ‘innovate’ and ‘innovative’ would lead one to believe that there’s a whole lot of new-ness being generated by nonprofits. Here’s the thing–it’s used so much that no one really believes you. Everyone is innovative these days. Unless you can prove it, don’t say it. Instead, speak directly to what makes what you’re doing compelling, interesting, awe-inspiring. Is it how you care for your patients? Is it the types of plays you put on? Is it the method you created to teach kids how to learn outdoors? Explain how you’re making the world a better place, not a new place.

Provide: Yes, I’m still on this soapbox. I may never get off it. Verbs are action words. They are the super heroes of every sentence. There are a whole bunch to chose from. You can do better. I know you can.

Raise awareness: Raising awareness is a means to an end. You raise awareness SO THAT something else happens. So that you’ll have more volunteers. So that you’re current donors will give to you again. So that you have more people take advantage of your programs. And you’re doing all that SO THAT you can deliver on your mission. Now some folks will say that if you’re doing a public awareness campaign–like not texting while driving–your objective really is to simply raise awareness. Not true. In those instances, you’re raising awareness SO THAT people will stop idiotically texting while driving. The next time someone busts out with “Our goal this year should be to raise awareness about our organization,” tell them to talk to the hand. Okay, don’t say that. But do ask what will be better for your organization–and eventually the world–if you do successfully raise awareness. What then? (If you want to make your awareness-raising efforts worthwhile, check out Kivi Leroux Miller’s upcoming webinar. She always rocks it.)

Sustainable: This word is used in two ways: 1) Being able to get by on your own with little to no outside assistance, e.g. not needing donations, and 2) being able to exist in perpetuity, e.g. not sucking the earth dry of all its natural resources so there’s nothing left for future generations. Unless you have earned income streams that mean you don’t need philanthropic donations, you’re always going to need donors. That is, by definition, part of the plan. You don’t want to be independent of them. When organizations say they’re “sustainable”, what they’re generally trying to say is, “We’re smart about how we run this organization so you should feel good about giving us your hard earned Benjamins because we’ll use them wisely.” So say that, or something along those lines.

In terms of the second usage, environmental organizations have been transitioning to ‘sustainability’ for quite some time. And it makes sense. But now it’s so over-used that it’s lost meaning. Getting more specific helps. In what way are you making it possible for the planet and its people to stick around for the long haul? Answer that question and you generally land on something that’s more compelling.

Stakeholder: Stakeholder sounds clinical. Standoff-ish. It sounds like you’d never want to be in the same room with this person, let alone have a chat about how important they are to your mission. People support you because they believe in what you do. Show them some respect, already! They are your fans, your supporters, your donors, your volunteers, your clients, your patients, your partners in making the world a better place! Not some name-less, face-less stakeholder. Sheesh.

Which of these words will you stop using? Which words would you add to the list?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?