Lists of banned words can weaken your fundraising

Over at the Network for Good Learning Center there was a post recently called 6 Words Nonprofit Should Avoid in 2010. Not long after, readers chipped in with more words to avoid, at 20 Additional Words for Nonprofits to Avoid. These included words like:


  • Stakeholder
  • Program
  • Resources
  • Robust
  • Transparent
  • Empower
  • Wonderful

Most writers, most people who use and enjoy language, have strong likes and dislikes for specific words. Conversations about the dislikes, especially, can be lively and entertaining.

But if you’re a fundraiser (or a marketer of any kind), these discussions can lead you badly astray.

As fundraisers, we don’t have the luxury to be dilettantes about words, to ban words we personally find ugly, overused, or cliched.

Our word choices need to point back to our donors’ needs and preferences.

Same with colors, fonts, styles, and anything else we create to motivate donors to support our causes. If you like green but your donors respond to red, you’d better use red.

Of course, it’s next to impossible to know in a meaningful way whether using any single word is repellent or attractive to donors. But your word choice should not be based on how you feel about the words, but on how your donors are most likely to feel.

We should avoid jargon that readers are unlikely to understand. But if there’s some loathsome bit of jargon that motivates giving — use it.

We should avoid ugly words with crunched up vowels and clashing consonants. But if an ugly word speaks to your audience — use it.

And really, I can’t think of very many reasons to avoid using cliches. They spread because people understand them. Use them.

It’s fun to talk about our yuck words. Building lists for forbidden words is a great way to hang out with other word people. But removing words from your vocabulary just because you don’t like them — don’t do it. It’s irresponsible.

(My personal top yuck word is partner used as a verb.)


Comments

4 responses to “Lists of banned words can weaken your fundraising”

  1. Tom Ahern Avatar
    Tom Ahern

    We should issue (for PR purposes, true, but…) an annual list of forbidden words. These words make everyone feel dirty. The nonprofit industry is about 3-to-5 years behind (in my humble estimation) the “real world” — i.e., the people who are judging your stuff: your appeals, your newsletters, your websites — in “terms of the terms they no longer trust.”

  2. Tom Ahern Avatar
    Tom Ahern

    We should issue (for PR purposes, true, but…) an annual list of forbidden words. These words make everyone feel dirty. The nonprofit industry is about 3-to-5 years behind (in my humble estimation) the “real world” — i.e., the people who are judging your stuff: your appeals, your newsletters, your websites — in “terms of the terms they no longer trust.”

  3. I consider this a real service, Jeff, thanks. And Tom, too.
    Beyond all of these, and an evergreen for me is: needs.

  4. I consider this a real service, Jeff, thanks. And Tom, too.
    Beyond all of these, and an evergreen for me is: needs.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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