Don’t be fooled by how much you think you know

A big stumbling block in the charitable world to making a big impact is the inflated vocabulary that muddies the way nonprofits and foundations communicate.

Often seduced by how much they think they know, professionals who work at charities can get hooked on using technical and academic language, jargon and acronymns that can confuse and turn off the supporters, volunteers, donors and partners that charities count on to do their work.

Instead of using the fewest possible words to tell a story that is clear and compelling, many nonprofits and foundations seem overly fond of using a lot of words that are big, abstract, vague and ultimately meaningless and off-putting.

Charity professionals, like their peers in fields such as education and government, also tend to favor the passive voice, as if to avoid any responsibility or accountability for their actions and decisions.

So in telling your story and communicating with the audiences you need to reach, use common sense and keep it simple.

To help do that, get to know the people you are trying to reach, and what they care about. Be direct, use plain words and the active voice, and say what you mean.

And steer clear of the annoying philanthro-babble that devalues the important work you do and makes you sound abstract, clinical and full of yourself.

Your job is to help people understand your cause, not to impress your peers with how much specialized knowledge you have acquired about your field and about philanthropy.

So when you tell your story, make it real.

Want help?

Philanthropy North Carolina is a consulting practice that provides writing and strategic communications support for nonprofits, foundations, colleges and universities, and others working for social good.

To find out more about hiring Philanthropy North Carolina to work with your organization to improve your communications, contact Todd Cohen at 919.272.2051 or

2 responses

  1. Excellent points Todd. So many people come see us(funders) with the belief that they can/should wow us with their technical expertise couched in some high-minded language. This has two flaws — (1) Often we know pretty quickly that the non-profits pitching their ideas don’t really know their subject –they are instead parroting the jargon and (2) misunderstands that most funders have a whole constellation of selection criteria that go into decision making–fit with strategy; perceived commitment on part of the implementers; community engagement etc. A plain-spoken common language discussion where there is listening on both sides is so much more useful.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your article, Todd; the use of “philanthro-babble” is a turn off. However, I do look forward to adding your very descriptive word “philanthro-babble” to my vocabulary. To state it another way, I look forward to using your new word to “capacity-build my vocabulary!”

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