Charities need to stop abusing language

Clear communication is essential for charities to succeed, yet they increasingly are using philanthropic jargon and doubletalk, and in the process putting their own survival at risk.

Charities are businesses. Their job is to improve lives. Their success is measured by the difference they make for the people and places they serve, and by their financial bottom line.

To best serve the people who receive their services, raise the money they need, run effective programs, operate efficiently, and find and keep smart employees, board members and volunteers, charities need to speak and write clearly.

They need to be able to tell their story so it is easy to understand the need they address, the people they serve, the way they work, their impact, and why people should care, get involved and support them.

Charities should speak plainly and make their words matter. They should embrace the fact that they are businesses with both social and financial bottom lines, and must survive in a fiercely competitive charitable marketplace.

But instead of using words that make their work easy to understand, and show people why they should get involved, charities abuse language, fogging their communications with jargon, technical words and acronyms.

And many charities, while wanting to avoid being seen as corporate, disengaged or bureaucratic, are quick to parrot the language of business, academia and government.

The job of charities is to make life better for the people and places they serve. They are businesses that provide direct services — to people and places in need, to donors, to volunteers, and to partner agencies.

To fix complex and interconnected social and global problems, charities need to say what they mean and do what they say.

And they need to stop pretending they operate in a refined atmosphere above the messy and often dysfunctional marketplace in which they must do business and compete.

To succeed, they must learn to communicate clearly with all their customers.

Want professional 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

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