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January 16, 2019

Words to Avoid—2019 Edition

Words are at the heart of nonprofit communications.

A nonprofit that uses clear language can create strong emotional connections and build trust, or motivate people to sign up, speak out, and more.

We find that the words below typically don’t accomplish any of these things, but of course, if one of them truly is the best choice to reach your reader, use it with reckless abandon.

As in years past, this list is a friendly reminder to think consciously about language and choose words that are understandable, inviting, and meaningful to all.

Guys

One of the most common greetings in the English language, “Hey guys,” has become so ingrained in our vernacular that it’s used without conscious thought. But “guys” should definitely be questioned, especially if you’re speaking to a diverse group of people.

For some, “guy” is a gender-neutral term. They have no problem being addressed as such. But for many women, nonbinary, and transgender people, being referred to by a word that literally means “men” can be hurtful or offensive.

No matter what, “guys” as a catchall term for everyone perpetuates the idea that maleness is neutral. We’re working on removing it from our collective vocabulary at Big Duck.

As thoughtful communicators, we should seize every opportunity to advance inclusion and equity through our word choices. Rather than guys, let’s make everyone, all, folks, team, or friends the norm.

Stakeholder

Nonprofits share a ton of jargon with the for-profit world. “Stakeholder” is one of the jargoniest. By definition, a stakeholder is a person with an interest or concern in something, especially a business. In reality, they could be anyone!

My hypothesis is that the ubiquity of this vague word may be a symptom of a larger lack of clarity around communications strategy. With specific goals, objectives, and audiences outlined in a communications plan, “stakeholders” wouldn’t be used nearly as much to identify people with a vested interest in an organization’s success.

While striving to achieve more by putting strategy to work for your nonprofit, try using “the right people” instead of ”stakeholders.” Admittedly, it’s just as fuzzy. But at least “people” humanizes who you’re talking about in lieu of defining who they are.

Vibrant

This word is thrown around as a descriptor of another word on this list (spoiler alert: it’s community). But what exactly does it mean?

Colorful? Artistic? Racially diverse? Economically thriving? Sunny?

We recommend setting some context to ground the word “vibrant” before dropping it into a mission, vision, or values statement. And hey, you might not even feel the urge to use it once you’ve done that.

Progressive

As an adjective, “progressive” is unclear at best, and meaningless at worst. Simply describing something—an idea, a platform, a new policy, etc.—as the opposite of conservative doesn’t say much about it.    

For example, an organization that claims, “We create progressive policies to advance justice,” sounds hollow compared to a statement like, “Our lawyers take on cases that set precedents for stronger health and safety standards in state prisons.” The latter sentence suggests a systemic understanding of the problem and possible solution, and nods to the idea that incarcerated people are people who deserve basic human rights and dignity.

Explicitly naming what and how your nonprofit is working to create a more just and equitable world for all speaks volumes not only about the values that drive you, but what “progress” actually looks like.

Unpack

I don’t know exactly how or when “unpack” became the replacement for “explain.” Maybe unpacking something is easier than explaining it? Whatever the reason, it has become so overused that maybe we’re all better off going back to words like explicate, clarify, or illuminate? Just kidding. Can’t wait to unpack my lunch later today.

Community

Is it a community of people living in Flint, Michigan? A community of donors? A community of retired Army generals?

We often see “community” used as a catchall phrase. But it can’t really stand alone. Without details on who makes up the community and what holds it together, people not only have a more difficult time understanding its relevance to a nonprofit’s work, but also finding their place in it. Yes, “community” can be exclusionary.

“Community” may be tough or downright impossible to avoid altogether—and in all likelihood, it’s here to stay. But before peppering your next email, blog post, or press release with this word unqualified, think about how someone unfamiliar with your organization may perceive it.

Try defining what “community” means to your nonprofit up front. The clearer and more specific you can get, the more dimensionality you’ll be able to show when talking about the people who are central to your organization.

A note on exclamation points

You don’t have to use them all the time. Not in fundraising appeals, blog posts, thank you emails, texts—anywhere. Sometimes digital communications can feel cold, especially if you’re drafting a short message. But using a period in place of an exclamation point won’t make the sentence seem curt or any less urgent. It really is ok!

There you have it. Let’s commit to cutting exclusive jargon, fuzzy phrases, and robot speak from our nonprofit vocabularies in 2019. Check out past Words to Avoid posts (here’s 2018, 2017, and 2016) and last year’s podcast to cover all your bases.

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