Words to Avoid—2018 Edition
And there’s no better time than the start of a new year to reflect on the overused phrases and insider jargon littering the nonprofit space and resolve to stand out—and speak up—with meaningful diction.
As always, we’re not saying never use these words, but offering this list as a friendly guide for nonprofit communicators to make stronger, smarter word choices a conscious practice. Let’s go in.
A catch-all term for engaging with a nonprofit, “Take action!” is as unclear as they come. When organizations use this phrase without defining what they want someone to do and why it matters, it sounds hollow and generic. As a result, it falls short of its intended purpose: to encourage people to connect with—and further the mission. Instead of speaking in generalities, we recommend nonprofits use clear, concise, language to direct audiences toward the next step, whether that be to Sign the petition! Volunteer with us! or Attend our event! (Exclamation points are optional.)
Now more than ever
Since its first appearance on our 2011 list, “Now more than ever,” has been upgraded from desperately to grievously overused. An overwhelming majority of the Big Duck team nominated it for inclusion this year, which means it’s everywhere. Though the times in which we’re living certainly can feel desperate, as a tactic to convey that urgency, this phrase feels more reactive than visionary and leaves an empty impression on audiences.
Rather than resort to this catchy, ubiquitous phrase, try describing what’s going on, why your audiences should care, and offer meaningful steps they can take to help. Doing so will show people why their immediate action is needed, build credibility, and lay the foundation for longer, stronger relationships.
This pair of emotionally vacant words strips away the humanity of who you’re trying to help. In certain contexts, we can see the allure of this phrase as a useful shorthand for describing a nonprofit’s work, but largely believe it deserves scrutiny from all sides.
- First, it’s vague. Who are the underserved populations? People who are incarcerated? Families without access to clean water? Youth who don’t have a safe, stable home?
- Second, it shifts responsibility away from those in power, who maintain oppressive institutional forces like racism, sexism, and classism, onto people and the social services sector itself.
- Third, it’s a missed opportunity for nonprofits to employ more human, emotional, and eye-opening language in its place.
Try painting a picture of the circumstances you’re striving to change, and the better future for those who will benefit from your organization’s success.
He/she, him/her, his/hers
Though strict grammarians may protest, moving away from the binary to more gender-neutral singular pronouns like they, them, and their is the inclusive thing to do. Proof: The Chicago Manual of Style has embraced the singular “they,” in informal (i.e. accessible) writing and the AP Stylebook is making strong inroads. Here’s some guidance:
- Rather than the generic he, use they/their when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or unspecified. For example, “Whoever sent us that anonymous donation should get a handwritten thank you letter in their mailbox.”
- Use they to refer to a specific, known person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. Or, use their name to ensure clarity. For instance, “Last week, Gene told me that their childhood nickname was Root Beer.”
If you’re unsure of someone’s preferred pronouns, ask! Hey, what are your preferred pronouns? Some of us at Big Duck have added our pronouns to our emails signatures to open up—and normalize—the conversation.
Nonprofits looking to engage the next generation of donors, supporters, and activists (millennials, Gen Z, and dare I say, Gen AA?) will especially benefit by shifting toward words that reflect a diverse range of gender expressions. Unlearning traditionally gendered language will take effort and practice, but doing so will help organizations reflect a safe, welcoming tone while advancing non-binary inclusion.
I haven’t taken a geometry class since high school, but if I’m not mistaken, circles—by nature—always come back to where they started from. More of an internal term, “circle back,” is a redundant and weird one. We’re guilty of using it all the time here at Big Duck.
A vision statement articulates a nonprofit’s idea of a better world, and the mission statement explains how they’ll create it. Ideally, it should go without saying that an organization is motivated by its mission. Why else would it exist?
We know some nonprofits struggle with staying on-mission in all that they do, but because this is a claim every organization could make, it’s not a very distinguishing one. Look for ways to bring your commitment to life throughout your communications—a values statement can be a great place to do that.
ANOA (A Note On Acronyms)
Acronyms are barriers to understanding. The ultimate insider speak, not only are acronyms unknowable to outside audiences, they’re unownable! Of course, there are exceptions of successful acronymic organizations—the ACLU, UNICEF, and one of my favorites, WWF. We can see their value as internal shorthand too. But for the majority of organizations whose goals are to reach new audiences and build recognition, using an acronym rather than a whole name is like putting up a brick wall where you want an open doorway. In short: Avoid acronyms at all costs!
Here’s to a better, brighter, more thoughtfully-worded 2018!