Language Matters in Nonprofit (and all) Marketing

5 min read

A few months ago, I attended an event hosted by a nonprofit here in Chicago. One of the panelists was the Chicago Public School’s Chief Equity Officer, Maurice Swinney, and the discussion was about breaking the cycle of childhood trauma. As Swinney was speaking, he was correcting himself so that he was always using person-first language. He was open about his effort, letting the audience know that we may hear him self-editing throughout the discussion.

I appreciated his candor, because being intentional about the language I use is something I’m personally working on, along with other members of the Prosper team. 

We don’t always get it right. But we’re committed to working on it and correcting ourselves when we’ve mis-spoken or mis-written. We’re having open conversations about how we as individuals, as a firm, and as nonprofit marketers can use language to empower and uplift the people the nonprofit sector serves, rather than stereotype or stigmatize them. In fact, just last week, we hosted an intimate conversation with nonprofit leaders in Chicago about avoiding poverty and stereotype porn. Alyssa also hosted a webinar on the same topic.

We’d love to have these conversations with you, too. In fact, many of us carry the responsibility of representing our nonprofit’s voices and brands, which means we can make progress on this work together, organization by organization. 

With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the things I’m working on and a few of the resources I’m turning to for guidance.

Here are a few language-oriented best practices to strive for as you communicate on behalf of your nonprofit:

Use People-first Language

According to the Sum of Us, people-first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. And, The Arc writes: “Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference.” 

During the panel discussion I referenced previously, Swinney was actively correcting himself from using phrases like “at-risk youth” to people-first phrases, like “youth in high-risk situations.” He didn’t want to marginalize people by grouping them into categories based not on who they are as individuals, but on their circumstances. 

By changing the order of our words, we can recognize individuality and the whole person.

Similarly, The Arc suggests, “By placing the person first [rather than the disability], the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability.”

Use Proper Pronouns 

UCSF’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center shares, “Using someone’s correct gender pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their identity.” 

In many parts of the country, “you guys,” is a common way individuals refer to a group of people. With this one, like Swinney, I actively correct myself if I accidentally fall back on poor habit. 

Beyond changing the way I refer to groups, I’m avoiding assumptions. When someone says something like, “My boss needs to be on this call,” I ask them for the name of their boss and how that person identifies, so that I can use their preferred gender pronouns.

Use Strength-Based Language

Strength-based language draws on the strengths of a person as opposed to the challenge the individual is experiencing. It’s derived from a strength-based approach to social work, where therapies and counseling center on helping an individual focus on their best qualities and using their positive assets to change their mindset.

We can do something similar in our nonprofit communications and with the language we use. 

Instead of writing something like “Our work transforms lives and families,” consider acknowledging that individuals and families play the most important role in their own transformation by writing something such as, “Our work provides support for individuals to transform their lives and families.”

In addition to the use of strength-based messaging, many nonprofits are using asset framing, to focus on a person’s contributions and aspirations as opposed to the challenges they face.

Amplify Community Voice 

As nonprofit marketers, we are also storytellers. However, no one person’s lived experience is the same as another’s. When stories are not our own, we need to take care in telling and sharing them to ensure anything we do is reflective of how the person or people we are representing want to be portrayed. In my last blog post, I shared a quick checklist of things you can do to make sure your story gathering and storytelling is accurate and successful.

This list is not exhaustive, and I recognize that I will never be done practicing and improving:

Because language is dynamic, changes with our struggles, and is shaped by criticism and the collective construction of social justice, we are compelled to keep building a collective language that liberates us all. -The Sum of Us

Here are some resources that can help with this work:

Because of the world I work in, these resources specifically focus on language and communication.

Looking forward: communications for equity and inclusion

In the nonprofit sector, we often talk about our responsibility around language choice and asset framing from a “do no harm” perspective. But at Prosper Strategies, we believe the sector can evolve its approach to one that doesn’t just avoid doing harm to the people we serve, but actually advances our organizations’ goals around equity and inclusion. We look forward to making progress on this with you. 

More than ever, I’d love to hear from you on this topic. What are you doing to shift your language choices and advance equity through communications at your nonprofit?  And what other resources should we add to our shortlist?

The Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto

For far too long, the nonprofit sector has thought far too small when it comes to marketing. Read the Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto to change your perspective on how marketing for nonprofits can — and should — have an even bigger impact.


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