Why Precise Word Choice Matters in Nonprofit Messaging

4 min read

As Romeo’s famous line goes, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would it really? I think not.

Word choice matters. Beyond obviously incorrect examples like “all intensive purposes” being an unfortunately common way some people say “all intents and purposes,” or writing “effect” when you mean “affect,” there are some more subtle mistakes people can make when they aren’t careful about their word choices.

Word choice matters. Click To Tweet

For nonprofits in particular, convincing your stakeholders to take action and accurately communicating your mission matters. Seemingly inoffensive, albeit misguided, word choices in nonprofit messaging can make or break the success of your organizations’ campaigns. Here’s how:

Similar words and phrases can have more positive or negative connotations.

Even if words or phrases have the same technical definition, you have to think about every possible interpretation of those phrases when including them in your nonprofit messaging. For example, consider the phrase “take advantage of.” It can convey being resourceful, or just putting something to use. But it can also imply something being done against another’s will or at their expense.

Sensitivity of subject matter is something to carefully consider as you communicate your initiatives and your mission. For instance, some organizations with a focus on communities with disabilities have completely rebranded based on changes in preferred terminologies. These organizations also often wanted to shift their positioning to one of more positivity. The Royal Institute of Deaf People changed their organization’s name to Action on Hearing Loss. The Spastics Society became Scope, and though name recognition went down (as expected), donations did not. The organization’s stakeholders remained invested because they were being appropriately stewarded.

Individual stakeholders may find different words or phrases resonant.

You should always put yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes –– whether they’re the individuals or communities you serve, donors, volunteers, or board members –– when you write messaging directed toward them. Carefully consider how they’ll perceive certain words and phrases. Will it feel personally tailored to them or to any average reader? Will they care about what you have to say or will they just keep scrolling?

This is why we first write key messages for individual stakeholders before we develop complete messaging and marketing strategies for our clients. We conduct secondary research and interview members of our clients’ stakeholder groups to get a sense of what they care about most.

Always put yourself in your #stakeholders’ shoes when you write messaging directed toward them. Click To Tweet

Then, we draft a set of master key messages that address:

  • WHO: What group(s) or communities does your organization serve?
  • WHAT: What does your organization do for those group(s)?
  • WHY: Why do you do what you do?
  • WHERE: Where is your impact focused?
  • TO WHAT END: What’s the intended end result of your actions and focus?

Finally, we tweak those key messages for each stakeholder. The differences may be subtle, perhaps even just one or two words changed for each audience, but a single word can make all the difference when encouraging individual stakeholders to take a particular action.

Some words and phrases are more exciting.

“Join the movement” sounds more compelling than “volunteer now.” “Make an impact” is more compelling than “make a donation.”

Sometimes, nonprofits can fall into a trap of using more direct, corporate-driven marketing language in their materials, which can detract from how their stakeholders view their mission. While you do want to encourage your audiences to participate in your mission in some way, it’s often best to communicate that mission (tailored to your audiences) in a way that evokes an emotion before making a suggestion or request.

Communicate your #mission in a way that evokes an emotion before making a suggestion or request. Click To Tweet

Nonprofit messaging nuances like these are why all organizations need at least one team member on staff dedicated to marketing and communications, or the assistance of an agency that understands the unique messaging needs of nonprofit organizations and their stakeholders. When team members’ attentions are divided across programs like community engagement or fundraising in addition to marketing responsibilities, these subtle differences can be missed and negatively affect the success of your campaigns and initiatives.

How can your organization fully leverage the value of nonprofit messaging and marketing?

Communicate with impact - a guide for social enterprise leaders

In our resource, Communicate with Impact, we provide a step-by-step guide for your organization to build a results-driven marketing campaign that maximizes your exposure with the right messaging.

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