Last month I was asked by Adele Wang, current student of fundraising at the amazing Humber College program in Toronto, to participate in some research she was doing on the topic of jargon. No problem.
I can rage about the overuse, emptiness of jargon ALL DAY LONG… but didn’t feel that would have tremendous value for Adele or her paper. I would actually have to do some “research” before formulating to many opinions. Good idea right? So I started with twitter and asked – “tell me what jargon really bothers you and why“. This word cloud shows you the result…
The one lasting impression I was left with was how often people use the word “jargon” in the most negative way and not one person pointed out that jargon can be incredibly inclusive and binding when used in the proper company and community.
Anyhow, I digress. I thought you might enjoy Adele’s thoughtful paper on jargon. Let us know what you think.
Translation Please! Jargon: the good and the bad – Adele Wang
MISSION: to‘protect people from harm’ with a range of ‘outcome focused’ functions that ‘are professionally competent and understand the operational context of their services, ensuring that they are quality assured, effective and efficient’.
If you are asking yourself, “what on earth does this mean?”– I assure you you’re not the only one. Although this is a mission statement taken from a police force, many non-profits are incorporating the same type of language in their communications. This is an example of how heavy jargon filled sentences can distort the message, overwhelm donors, and lose urgency in its tone.
There are multiple ways to say the same thing that can produce vastly different effects in perception, and as we all know- perception becomes reality. It is important to note that the derivation of non-profit lexicon is no different than any other; it is formed from the need of a sector to establish itself. Although a negative connotation is often attached to it, jargon is not intrinsically detrimental to communication. The development of industry speak is natural and is needed for a set of individuals to work efficiently within a set of recognized and familiar terms (Shupac 2012).
At its best, the non-profit lexicon can give its professionals a sense of identity by shaping the culture of the organization and influencing the way people approach their work. In an article written by Jodie Shupac, Graham Smart explains that “part of joining a ‘tribe’ is to learn its jargon… to feel a part of it is to learn the language of that organization” (2012).
Although this elusive secret language can form a sense of unity, complications can arise from overuse and misuse. It can become exclusive and begin to alienate those that are not familiar with these special terms. Most importantly, it can exclude current and potential donors that are vital to the fundraising equation.
In their worst form jargon can lead to an imprecise, unclear, and confusing message void of any real meaning. It can also take on the appearance that the organization is masking a lack of knowledge and expertise, or masking its shortfalls. This distortion can breed skepticism among donors. According to John Lepp, a direct marketing consultant at Agents of Good, too much jargon will overwhelm a donor, obstructing communication to them of a worthy cause and depriving them of an opportunity to take action.
So what is it that turns jargon from being a natural mechanism for efficiency, into an obstacle of communication?
Lepp explains that heavy jargon filled sentences can result from a pressure to appear a certain way – whether that be efficient, knowledgeable or tech-savvy. With overuse, the issue is that even the sound of some jargon words can illicit an immediate eye roll. Words can become so overused that they begin to lack credibility and meaning. With everyone being ‘transparent’,’ accountable’, and ‘donor centred’ these days, the onus is almost on the charity to prove it.
To also note, with the overuse of a word, at some point it is bound to be used in the wrong context or without the full understanding of its implications. Leah Eustace and Jonathon Grapsas comment that a one-time automatic thank you email for a gift does not equal ‘stewardship’, nor does a mention of the organization’s website on their direct mail piece count as ‘multichannel’ marketing.
Donor-centred fundraising has been the popular model at the forefront for the last decade (Miller, 2013). However, what many non-profits and consultants sometimes fail to remember is that the heart of donor-centred fundraising is communicating with your donors. Rather than being donor-centric, the heavy and self-important jargon about its ‘mission to build capacity’ and the like, that is being directed to donors, reflects a more charity-centred approach.
These are examples of the disconnect with many organizations between what is being said, and what is actually being practiced.
Sources and Forces Looking at the leaders in the non-profit sector, John Lepp lists consultants, the deemed ‘experts’ that advise the professionals in our sector as a primary influence for what words professionals choose to use. Jonathon Grapsas, notes that the over representation of Board members from the Corporate Sector sitting on our non-profit boards also play a factor. The words that they use in their day-to-day work speak trickles into our language, influencing the strategic models we use.
As Kivi Miller suggests, generational shifts also play an important part in the language and titles we use with donors. The way in which our Baby Boomers approach philanthropy (identity) is vastly different than what drives Generation Y’s to give. Therefore the language must adhere to these audiences.
Trends After compiling a list of the most frequently used jargon words from the last 4 years beginning in 2009, I set out to ask consultants in the non-profit field for their opinions. Once I had a bank of popular jargon, I placed them into categories to analyze an umbrella trend.
Among the words, terms such as “social enterprise, collaborative, integrate, and corporate social responsibility,“ signify a continuing trend of working together and the push for more intimate relationships across all sectors (non-profit, local citizens, government, and corporate) for amplified social good impact.
It will also come as no surprise that ‘multichannel’ marketing and social media terms were heavy in articles from 2009-2013, with many mentions by the interviewed consultants. Twitter, in particular, seems to lead the way with non-profit marketing strategy where ‘tweet’ is becoming engrained into a popular verb like ‘google’.
John Lepp observes that much of the jargon non-profit professionals use today may emulate the commercial world, but does not necessarily mean it is being used correctly. The character of corporate language is very technical and functional, and while some strategic words are necessary, the pervasiveness of for-profit language may overrun the language that it also needed to appeal to our donors.
“Emotions, more than anything, drive people’s propensity to become donors” (Burnett 2012). If this holds true, then we must be careful that our messages have a balance that incorporates both the technical and the emotion evoking. It can be difficult to make a compelling case with an overuse of technical jargon of ,“capacity building, efficiency’ and expect donors to respond with an action to give.
And in the wake of the Dan Pallotta TedTalk on changing the conversation on overhead, it comes as no surprise that we can expect to see a slow shift in how we measure the success or how ‘good’ a non-profit is. Managing their expenses/finances sound wisely. When asked of words to look out for, the consultants listed words such as social or passion capital, and return on investment replacing cost per dollar raised.
No consultant recommends avoiding all jargon, as that would be impossible. Think of a word or phrase as having a certain personality attached to it. What words and phrases one decides to use is to their discretion on the tone they are aiming for.
Recommendations When hearing a buzzword for the first time, there are things to be aware of before tossing it into your own daily talk at the office or in front of donors. A few things to remember:
• Revert back to basics. Be Simple, Clear, honest and Precise.
• Only use jargon you fully understand, mean, and will put into action. Forget about trying to sound ‘strategic’, efficient, and business savvy as your primary message. This does not convince donors to give to you.
• Don’t assume others understand you. Your frame of reference may be different than theirs.
• Know your audience
• If there is any uncertainty, always test. Asking a person that is within the non-profit or fundraising profession for feedback is the best way to gage the public and your prospective donors’ frame of reference.
Always keep in mind: Your donors should not need a translator to get to the heart of what you do. Communicating clearly with our donors is at the heart of building a relationship. To do this, we must write and speak in ways that make sense to our supporters, without them having to pull out a dictionary to decipher it.
Amore, K., Raymond, S., & Schiff, S. (2011). The Young and the Relentless:Expectations of the Next Generation of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leaders. Advancing Philanthropy, 58-61.
Burnett, Ken. 2012. The Emotional Brain. http://www.kenburnett.com/Blog26EmotionalBrain.html
Eustace, Leah. Interview, conducted by Adele Wang on March 25th, 2013.
Grapsas, Jonathon. Interview, conducted by Adele Wang on April 3, 2013.
Lepp, John. Interview, conducted by Adele Wang on April 9, 2013.
Miller, K. L. (2013). Four Words that are Shifting Nonprofit Communications and Fundraising. Retrieved 2013, from Non Profit Marketing Guide: http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/resources/fundraising/four-words-that-are-shifting-nonprofit-communications-and-fundraising/#?inf_contact_key=da84c6592a9c6ac064660a7be9e853ccd49456ed03836d03d82b1bdcb088c1a3&utm_source=eNews:+March+7,+2013&utm_campa
Shupac, J. (2012). Do you speak nonprofit? A primer on sector buzzwords and jargon. Retrieved 2013, from Charity Village: https://charityvillage.com/Content.aspx?topic=Do_you_speak_nonprofit_A_primer_on_sector_buzzwords_and_jargon