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By: Ann Green


I believe one of the most important aspects of communication (written and verbal) is to make sure your audience understands you. There are many reasons this doesn’t happen. In nonprofit communication, organizations will overcomplicate things or use jargon and other language donors don’t understand. Some people like to show off their big vocabulary or only think about things from their perspective.


The problem is if your audience doesn’t understand you, you can’t connect with them. You may have trouble convincing them to take action, such as making a donation.


Remember, you are not your audience and you need to keep them in mind when you communicate with them. Here’s what you need to do to make sure your audience understands you.


Write at a sixth to eighth-grade level

This is not dumbing down. You’re smartening up so you can ensure your donors will understand you.


I find it annoying if I come across a word I don’t understand and have to look it up. I have a pretty good vocabulary but wonder why the writer didn’t use a more understandable word.


Some people might not bother to look something up and then won’t know what you’re trying to convey.


Maybe we’re going back to our school days when we were encouraged to use all those big vocabulary words we studied or write lengthy, complex essays.


A readability tool, such as Flesch Kincaid, can help you with this.


Create a jargon-free zone

One of the biggest culprits here is using jargon. Over the last four years, we’ve seen many examples of real problems affecting real people. We’ve also seen more authenticity. Yet, some nonprofit organizations are still using jargon in their donor communication.


They may be using the same boring templates they’ve used for years or they’re so used to some of these terms that they don’t realize these words fall flat with their donors. I think people use jargon because it’s insider language that makes them feel like they’re “in the know” in their professional community. It’s easy to slip into jargon mode in your work environment. But the danger comes when jargon creeps outside of your insular world and into your donor communication.


Sometimes we get lazy and use jargon when we can’t think of anything fresh and original. Instead, you see appeal letters, thank you letters, newsletter articles, and impact reports laced with cringe-worthy terms such as food insecurity, at-risk youth, and underserved communities.


While your donors may know what some of these terms mean, they’re vague, impersonal, and can come across as demeaning.


How to break free from your jargon

You may know you need to freshen up some of your messages but aren’t sure how to start. 


Sometimes you need to give a little more information. Let’s look at these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but please try to limit them when you communicate with your donors.

  1. Food insecurity The USDA defines it as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Yikes, that’s a mouthful! I’ve never liked the term food insecurity because it’s so impersonal. We hear this term often because it continues to be a big problem. Let’s go a step further and put it in human terms by describing a situation where a single mother has to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

  2. At-risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen or has happened. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail their classes, be held back, and drop out of school. Remote learning didn’t work for many of the students in our community and they continue to fall behind.  

  3. Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services these residents don’t receive. Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, decent preschool education, or all of the above. Tell a story or give a specific example. Carol has to take two buses to see a doctor for a heart condition because there isn’t a good healthcare facility in her community. She often feels wiped out after these trips, so sometimes she skips her appointments. 


Another way to help you transition from jargon to understandable language is to stop using it in your work environment. That means at staff meetings and in interoffice written communication. Maybe you go so far as to re-write your mission statement to make it more conversational. And telling staff and board members to recite your mission statement as an elevator pitch is a bad idea unless you can make it conversational.


It’s important for you to take time to break free from your jargon to ensure your donors will understand you. Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.


Tell a story

This is why stories are so important. You can get beyond that vague, impersonal language and jargon and let your donors see firsthand how they’re helping you make a difference for your clients/community.


Visualize your reader 

Donor or audience personas can be useful on many levels. How much do you know about your donors? The average age of a donor is 64. That’s something to take into account. So is what drew them to your organization.


I always like to use this analogy. Imagine you’re at a family gathering and you’re explaining what your organization does to your 75-year-old Aunt Shirley, or maybe it’s Uncle Ted. Does she look confused and uninterested when you use terms like underserved and at-risk, or does he perk up and want you to tell him more when you mention you’ve been able to help homeless families move out of shelters and into their own homes?


You can go one step further and ask a friend or family member (maybe Aunt Shirley) to look at some of your messages. Remember, what’s clear to you may not be clear to others.


Always take into account who’s reading your fundraising letter or other type of communication. Most likely, your donors don’t have a medical or social services background. They also don’t have a lot of time to look up something they don’t understand. 

What they do want is a personal connection and to be able to understand you.

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