Words Matter

Words Matter

Words Matter

All nonprofits have developed a framework, whether intentionally or not, around how they discuss their work, the people they serve, and their audience. Where one organization might say they help “returned citizens,” another might say “rehabilitated individuals” to refer to formerly incarcerated inmates. Both are working with the same demographic, but have intentionally considered how they want to talk about the people they serve.

They take this effort because words do matter. Words allow the reader and recipient to have an emotional connection to your work; words help outsiders better understand the intent of the services you provide.

But these are not the only important words that nonprofits and social impact organizations can use. Unfortunately, in efforts to powerfully convey intent and actions, organizations fall all too easily into the trap of using the “vocabulary of the moment,” more colloquially known as buzzwords.

The harm in buzzwords is that they can obfuscate your message rather than enhance, diluting the intended emotional connection you are attempting to create. Here are a few popular buzzwords that can be particularly troublesome when misused.


During this week’s SXSW Conference in Austin, TX, Sonal Shah asked during a panel discussion if “the bastardization of the word impact” was affecting impact investing. The response appears to be a resounding yes.

But for those outside the impact investing space, this misuse has also had negative consequences. The word “impact” has turned into the catch-all for social good organizations seeking to highlight the effects and effectiveness of their work in their communities. But what does impact really mean? And how does it translate across causes, regions, and efforts? To put it another way – impact has become a crutch to describe results without having to quantitatively back those claims up.

Impact doesn’t need to be avoided entirely, but used more intentionally. When you consider using the word impact, consider if you have numbers or specific anecdotes that could more effectively describe your work and results. Be as specific as possible. In doing so, you will more dynamically tell your organization’s story.


The concept of empowerment, per Wikipedia, is as follows:

“Empowerment is the process of obtaining basic opportunities for marginalized people, either directly by those people, or through the help of non-marginalized others who share their own access to these opportunities…(e)mpowerment also includes encouraging, and developing the skills for, self-sufficiency, with a focus on eliminating the future need for charity or welfare in the individuals of the group.”

Charitable organizations have a challenging proposition – to treat the people they serve with respect and understanding, while outreaching to donors and funders about the great need of this community. Too often, charities fall into the trap of treating their population as “passive recipients of aid” rather than active participants, while still claiming to “empower” these individuals.

One of the key components of that definition is “encouraging and developing the skills for self-sufficiency” – in what ways does your organization attempt to accomplish this in your work? Oftentimes, “empower” is being used as a shorthand to mean “giving power to” rather than the process of developing self-sufficiency as described above, and in misusing the term, misidentifying the work that is taking place.

Before writing that you are “empowering” your community, consider the ramifications of communicating your work in that way.


A popular and effective fundraising strategy is to create a sense of urgency within your donor and funder base. This is especially true during end of year fundraising campaigns – nonprofits both large and small tout the immediacy of the timeline, urging donors to commit before the end of the year.

But why the rush? Is there an actual reason for the immediate timeline, or is it simply a tactic to increase donations?

To truly connect with your audience, urgency needs to be authentic. A lost major donor or an unexpected financial burden are examples of actual immediate need of funds. An end of a fundraising campaign is not an urgent need, and can come across as disingenuous.

Most importantly, you can’t build a relationship with now. Relationship building is critical to longterm success for fundraising, and a constant barrage of immediate needs and crises can alienate even the most committed supporter.

We start our links with another word that is often used incorrectly, including by us at SCC – sorry:

  1. Tory Paez of Catalyst details the five things that you can say instead of “sorry.”
  2. Tori Loubier of the CLASSY Awards shares five trends that will drive social innovation this year.
  3. Ketchum published interesting research on consumer and marketing trends of those who are 50+. There are many interesting data points for social good organizations.
  4. If you’re struggling with your email newsletter content and performance, we suggest you read John Haydon’s list of things to avoid.
  5. Shana Masterson passes along some of the most tweetable moments from the Peer to Peer Professional Forum Conference (#P2P15)

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