“Your generous donation makes an impact in our community, empowers people of all ages and helps sustain our organization.”
How many times in the past few months have you found yourself writing a sentence like that (albeit hopefully more specific) when explaining why your organization needs support? If you’re like most nonprofits, the answer is quite often.
That’s where the bad news comes in. If a variation of the above sentence sounds all too familiar, your fundraising materials sound identical to that of millions of other organizations.
It gets worse: Sounding similar to other organizations doesn’t just make it hard for prospective donors to tell you apart – it makes it hard for people to even understand what it is your organization does. And if people don’t understand the good work you do, they won’t understand why you need their support.
And it’s all because of four little words.
Every industry has its own set of jargon, and the cause sector is no exception. Compare your organization’s mission statement to that of a four or five others, and I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find many of the same words used in all of them.
This isn’t to say that using jargon is always a bad thing. In fact, within an organization and with others in the sector, it can make language more effective and create a sense of unity. Outside the sector, though, it’s different. In some cases, people simply don’t understand what we’re trying to say. In other cases, some words and phrases have been so overused that the meaning has been lost over time. (And, if we’re being honest, it’s just the easy way out.)
As you’re putting together an email or crafting your next appeal, here are, in my opinion, the four most overused words in the cause sector to avoid:
Empower means “to equip or supply with an ability.” The key word there is ability. An organization can’t empower others, they can only do that themselves. When you use the word “empower,” what you probably mean is “enable.”
Don’t: “We want to empower young people to further their education.”
Do: “We want to enable young people to further their education.”
Alternatives: Enable, provide opportunity, make possible
As a noun, “impact” means “the power of making a strong, immediate impression.” This noun has also become common as a verb, as in “the program impacted a lot of people.” (Our president, Derrick Feldmann, has a long history with this word.) Besides being overused, the word “impact” as a noun is very vague. Instead of telling donors their support has an impact, tell them what that impact is – and leave the word out of it! As a verb, it’s awkward and unspecific.
Don’t: “Your donation makes a big impact for single moms.”
Do: “Your donation helps single moms afford healthcare for their family.
Alternatives (nouns): Result, power, influence, effect; (verbs) change, transform, help
Little-known fact: Impactful is not a word, so don’t use it.
Sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes. The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture. In the cause sector, it’s often used to describe how something is viable or endures.
Don’t: “Your donation sustains our organization.”
Do: “With your support, we can continue our efforts in the fight against hunger.”
Alternatives: Feasible, viable, enduring, continue, preserve
Community can mean so many different things. Are you talking about your neighborhood? Your city? Community can be a sloppy way to say “people with common interests” – or worse yet, “our target audience.” When you want to use the word “community,” describe who or what makes up that community instead.
Don’t: “We help people in our community every day.”
Do: “Our organization continuously works to find shelter for homeless individuals in Fountain Square.”
Alternatives: Neighborhood, city, specific group of people
Guilty of including jargon or overused words in your writing? We all are – myself included. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.
If there’s one feature your writing needs to have, it’s clarity. When you come across the words above, or any words or phrases you identify as jargon, unclear or unnecessary, replace them. Remember, it’s better to show donors what you do rather than tell them. Think about what you’re really trying to say, and be as simple and direct as possible.