4 Words Nonprofits Need to Stop Using

Photo by thepipe26
05.22.2012By

Photo by thepipe26

I write every day so I have to be a word guy. I’m always searching for just the right thing to say. But I rarely use a dictionary or thesaurus to find the right word. I use words that any grade-schooler would know. Replacing concrete nouns and hard working verbs with soft and lazy four-syllable words isn’t my style. I’m not interested in growing my vocabulary. I want to use the words I do know clearly and compellingly.

Most of what I hear and read from nonprofits makes me cringe. The words they use are vague and lifeless as their aim is to play it safe and be all-inclusive. “Cut these words and they would bleed,” said one writer. But nonprofit words are limp, empty, and dry. In a world where you have to work harder than ever to stand out from your competitors, words are your ally.

Here are four words nonprofits should stop using, and the red-blooded words that should replace them.

Bad word: Underserved

Better word: Poor

I used to work for a nonprofit that described their poor patients as underserved. But underserved to me is when you order a pepperoni pizza and they forget the pepperoni. That’s underserved! I understand the need to use words that are respectful, but calling people underserved doesn’t describe who they are or why they need our help.

Bad word: Synergy

Better words: Win-win, Partnership

If I ever start my own line of sports drinks, I plan to call it “Synergize!” Until then, I won’t use synergy, or any of its variations. And neither should you. It’s an overused, glib word that isn’t good for anyone.

Bad word: Challenging

Better words: Difficult, Bad

The economy isn’t challenging. It’s sputtering. It’s stalled. It sucks. Pick a word that says what you want to say about whatever is supposedly lacking. Your nonprofit isn’t challenged. It doesn’t have the money, people, vision to solve the pressing problem it’s trying to fix. That’s the kind of organization I want to support.

Bad word: Charity

Better word: Partner

I like to say that “Charity is for chumps.” Charity is a word for the lowest form of giving. It’s what I call “go away money.” Here’s a check, now leave me alone. Most businesses I work with aren’t interested in charity. They want to support nonprofit partners that are making things happen for whomever they serve and for their company partner. I never visit a business looking for charity. I always begin by offering something first. It shocks people that I’m putting something in their hand instead of expecting a check in mine. My next step is to explore ways to work together that will benefit both of us. I don’t want a one-sided relationship. It will feel too much like a handout.

Charity is dead. Long live win-win partnerships!

I could go on and on, but let’s hear from you. What words do you think nonprofits need to stop using?

  • Robin

    I love your point about charity vs. partner but I do question the use of calling people poor vs. under served. The kids that my organization serves lack many of the opportunities that I did growing up, but very few of them would identify as poor (though 50% of their families earn under $27,000 a year). We will not call our kids poor because its not fair to them.u00a0

  • http://twitter.com/joewaters Joe Waters

    Robin, I totally see your point and struggled with this myself. Remember, it’s not so much what you call THEM, it’s more about how you talk about your mission and the people you help. I just think it’s difficult to connect with people with underserved. It doesn’t increase understanding or unlock emotions.u00a0nnAs a kid you grew up very poor myself, I understand the need for sensitivity on this issue.u00a0nnThank you for your comment!nnJoe

  • Stephen

    Thank you for this Joe. As you might be aware, it is a struggle to survive but this does not deter our efforts and we have some amazing successes against the odds. Words can always form a trap and it is difficult to describe the person in the street that cannot afford college fees and that participate in our social outreach training courses.nSee http://www.papillonfoundation.comnKind regards, Stephen Smith

  • Ann

    This is great. u00a0I just wrote a blog post about jargonu00a0http://www.anngreennonprofit.com/2012/05/dont-use-jargon.htmlu00a0 It’s something we all need to avoid. u00a0I like your idea of u00a0creating an energy drink called synergize. u00a0Otherwise it’s such a meaningless word.

  • Tony

    I am a copywriter and not in the non-profit sector, so an an outsider I never quite “got” the term “Underserved” because all the church, government, civic groups and charitable groups were serving the poor! They got “served” more than the middle to upper class families! It is rare to see a food pantry in a rich neighborhood.u00a0nnPlus, to the layman, “Underserved” sounds very close to “Undeserved” – which is sending the complete opposite message.u00a0

    • http://twitter.com/joewaters Joe Waters

      Good point, Tony. I hadn’t thought of it that way! Undeserved indeed.

  • Nanci

    When organizations use the word “trying” they really do themselves a disservice…especially when delivering a fundraising pitch. “Trying” is more passive. It implies “we’re trying to … BUT we are playing defense and the prospects of winning are low. Notice how much more compelling it sounds when words like “working” and “fighting” are used instead: “We are trying to get big money out of politics to restore our democracy.” (Yeah, good luck with that.) “We are fighting to get big money out of politics to restore our democracy.” (And who is trying to stop you?) Here is the opportunity to define the opposition and get the audience on your side.nnn

    • http://twitter.com/joewaters Joe Waters

      Great point, Nanci. A choice of words IS a choice of worlds.

  • Hopefulspirit10

    The only oneu00a0I disagree with is using “poor.”u00a0 I’d use “people in need.”

  • https://twitter.com/#!/laurakeet laurakeet

    I agree that “partner” is a good noun, but I REALLY want to stop seeing it as a verb! Nonprofits want to “partner” with everybody – their donors, other nonprofits, companies… As Calvin and Hobbes said, verbing weirds words. Tell me how you want to get these people/groups involved in your work, not just that you want to “partner” with them.

    • http://twitter.com/joewaters Joe Waters

      Good point, Laura!

  • Mjoyce

    Great points Mike.u00a0 Well said.

  • Red

    I can’t recall the Bible saying anything about win-win partnerships. But I do recall mention of charity. I’m not big on the Bible as my marker for living, but its values do infuse America.nnIf I give $50 to the Red Cross am I then a win-win partner? Really? Reaaalllly?nn”Poor” is a tough word as it also accompanies or suggest powerless. yet the poorest Americans are still 10x more “rich” than the poorest 1/4 of the world. And the (US) poor can have or get some power, if they organize and mobilize. So just less powerful? Agreed, underserved sounds like an assessment ofu00a0a market or restaurant patron and does invoke idea of justice, fair play.

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