What Does That Mean?

When you write an appeal, thank you letter, or newsletter article, are you throwing in terms like at-risk youth and underserved communities?   The problem with those terms is they’re broad and often meaningless. 
Here’s an example from a thank you letter I received from a social services agency. “As you already know, X organization serves individuals who are often the most disenfranchised members of their communities.” Yikes! What does that mean?
Let’s look at some of 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 try to limit them when you communicate with donors. How To Follow in the Footsteps of Your Nonprofit’s Promise
At- risk
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. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail, be held back, and drop out of school.
I like this post How to Convince Your Boss to Let You Write Like a Human and some of the comments in which people describe their experiences of whether to say kids, children, or youth.
I’ve had that same discussion at different organizations.  We can say children and youth, but not kids because that’s too informal and demeaning.  

But why not say kids?  I’m sure most donors don’t refer to their children as youth.  Kids sounds warm and fuzzy and well, youth does not.
After having this debate, one of my colleagues said it made him think of the two yoots scene from the movie, My Cousin Vinnie.  
Disenfranchised means being stripped of power, rights, or privileges.  It’s often used when talking about voting rights.
I’m not sure the organization I quoted above used it correctly, but either way, it’s a mouthful. If your clients fall into this category, show how you are giving them a voice or giving them back their rights.
Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services the residents don’t receive.  Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, or decent preschool.
Be careful not to just say services. The 3 Most Boring Words in Fundraising Appeals Again, tell a story or give a specific example.  Sandra isn’t able send her daughter Lisa to a good preschool because there isn’t an affordable one nearby.
Making a difference or changing lives
Yes, you need to show your donors how you are making a difference, but you can’t just say your organization is making a difference or changing lives.
How are you doing that, and why is it important?  Maybe you’re helping families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, motel, or their car.  Now they have a place to call home.
Use language your donors will understand
Most of your donors don’t use these terms when they talk to their friends and neither should you when you communicate with them.  Use language they’ll understand.
Do you have any terms to add to this list?
Photo by Colin Kinner via Flickr



5 thoughts on “What Does That Mean?

  1. I would add that we should be careful with using stats without a story. Numbers can make the problem so big that it becomes impersonal. Nice tips. Thanks.


  2. Great post Ann! I would add “impact”. As I shared in a recent post (http://bit.ly/QW60cN), the problem with the word “impact” is that too many organizations have used it as a stand-in for actual results. Rather than measuring and reporting on how their activities and accomplishments have actually affected positive change toward their particular cause or issue, organizations have attempted to let the word stand in proxy as a vague inference of unidentified but assured progress.


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