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.