The case of the forbidden synonyms, or how to make fundraising even harder to do

A number of years ago, I had two different clients that were both engaged in fighting poverty. Both quality, well-run organizations.

One organization banned the word “poor” from their vocabulary. They felt it unfairly stereotyped the people they served, undermined their dignity, and created in donors an insidious sense of superiority. The preferred word for describing poverty-stricken people was “needy.”

The other organization banned the word “needy” from their vocabulary. They felt it unfairly stereotyped the people they served, undermined their dignity, and created in donors an insidious sense of superiority. The preferred word for describing poverty-stricken people was “poor.”

I never managed to get the two organizations in the same room at the same time. Which is probably just as well.

Poor and needy are both useful words. Each has its own connotations and baggage. A good writer will use the right word at the right time. And possibly use both.

When you ban a word because you feel it’s harmful in some way, you’re probably wrong about that. Context is everything, and banning words does nothing to protect you from saying regrettable things. The only protection is wide-awake writing.

We can get awfully wrapped up in the words we can and can’t use. But here’s a hint: If you have a list of forbidden words that contains anything other than profanity, you’re just being clueless. And probably hurting your fundraising and communications.


Comments

10 responses to “The case of the forbidden synonyms, or how to make fundraising even harder to do”

  1. The use of the words other than having “explicit profanity” embedded in it is a complex phenomena and always refer to the context, intention and tone when it is used. In the humanitarian sector we come across different such words including “disability”, “male and female”, “chairman” and “Chairperson” etc. some people are found very strict in changing it to, in their view, a mild term like “differently abled people for disability”; men and women for male and female”. the question is whether using these words differently really help increase the respect or we are trapped in the jargons of words?
    Comments are welcome.

  2. The use of the words other than having “explicit profanity” embedded in it is a complex phenomena and always refer to the context, intention and tone when it is used. In the humanitarian sector we come across different such words including “disability”, “male and female”, “chairman” and “Chairperson” etc. some people are found very strict in changing it to, in their view, a mild term like “differently abled people for disability”; men and women for male and female”. the question is whether using these words differently really help increase the respect or we are trapped in the jargons of words?
    Comments are welcome.

  3. I want to marry this post and have it’s synonym-y babies. We fight this all the time. Our organization rescues abandoned babies and cares for them for life if they age out of adoption. The adoption community would like us to stop using the word abandoned for the sake of the children who are adopted and grow up to learn where they came from. It’s a legit concern for sure. But I don’t see how watering down the need prevents those children from finding out how they came to be with their adoptive family. And what I can see is how removing the word abandoned robs the children who are not adopted of the compassion they deserve from the rest of the world. We use other phrases too and are careful to contextualize the cultural reasons for abandonment and the lack of parental support. But that doesn’t seem to dispel the fears the adoption community has over the world abandon. It’s a struggle and we are constantly searching for the best ways to show the need, but someones feathers are always going to be ruffled.

  4. I want to marry this post and have it’s synonym-y babies. We fight this all the time. Our organization rescues abandoned babies and cares for them for life if they age out of adoption. The adoption community would like us to stop using the word abandoned for the sake of the children who are adopted and grow up to learn where they came from. It’s a legit concern for sure. But I don’t see how watering down the need prevents those children from finding out how they came to be with their adoptive family. And what I can see is how removing the word abandoned robs the children who are not adopted of the compassion they deserve from the rest of the world. We use other phrases too and are careful to contextualize the cultural reasons for abandonment and the lack of parental support. But that doesn’t seem to dispel the fears the adoption community has over the world abandon. It’s a struggle and we are constantly searching for the best ways to show the need, but someones feathers are always going to be ruffled.

  5. *word abandon, not world

  6. *word abandon, not world

  7. Fazal, I’m writing my comment as a fundraising professional who is legally blind. The term “differently abled” is patronizing and stupid. When I lost most of my vision, I did NOT gain any new abilities or superpowers. I’m fine with more honest terms such as “disabled” or “handicapped” because they more accurately imply a loss.

  8. Fazal, I’m writing my comment as a fundraising professional who is legally blind. The term “differently abled” is patronizing and stupid. When I lost most of my vision, I did NOT gain any new abilities or superpowers. I’m fine with more honest terms such as “disabled” or “handicapped” because they more accurately imply a loss.

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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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