Fundraising Writer Alert: 6 Things Modern Jargon Is and Why You Must Avoid Them

No Jargon Sign

Jargon is the opposite of constituent-centered writing.

You must avoid it because it’s not constituent-centered.
I could stop here, but I won’t.  Because most of us use jargon all the time without being aware we’re doing so.  Why?  Because we only know that it’s ‘bad’ and to be avoided.  Yet how can one avoid something without knowing what it is?
Let’s take a look at some different types of jargon; then vow to stop using it.

Jargon pops up all over the place; it’s more insidious than you think.  Originally, the word applied to trade languages used by people who spoke different native tongues to communicate. Jargon was esoteric, yet it was precisely defined for ease of communication between specialists in a given field (e.g., physics; mathematics; astronomy; computers; medicine; law). This made sense.  And it’s also common sense that we’d want to avoid using technical language when trying to communicate with (or raise funds from) non-technically savvy folks. This would be a simple rule to apply.  But jargon is much more than scientific lingo.
The type of jargon most used today is better described as a buzzword (which often develops from the appropriation of technical jargon, yet is used in a more general way, often inaccurately or inappropriately.) It may be used due to an intentional desire to be vague or, perhaps, to a desire to impress. The key is that the words are used outside of the context where they’ll be easily grasped (click here for a list of common buzzwords in business, and here for a list for nonprofits from trend watcher Lucy Bernholz ).
  1. A “clinical” or “official” or “specialist” word. In the nonprofit world this would extend to words like ‘case management’ (really, who wants to be either a ‘case’ or be ‘managed’?); ‘client’ (this is a broad categorization, even a dehumanization, of a real person who’s a child, parent or grandparent), or ‘youth’ (when is the last time you said “I’m going to pick the youths up at soccer?”). Jargon can simply be words that are used in white papers and grant proposals, but not in conversation (or fundraising appeals).
  1. A term of art.  It may seem to be a perfectly ‘normal’, everyday word to you.  But would your best friend really understand what it means? Another way to think about this is whether the terminology is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event. One example is ‘planned giving’ (even those within the profession disagree as to the meaning); others are ‘stakeholder’, ‘dashboard’ and ‘outside-the-box.’ When a term is only widely recognized in your industry, and not easily comprehended by the general public, this is jargon.
  1. A word that’s seldom part of every day usage. George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”  What does “microfinance” or “social entrepreneur” mean to the average person on your mailing list?  I recently used the word “bandwidth” in a blog post, and not everyone understood what I meant. Test words out on colleagues if you aren’t sure.
  1. A pompous, “big” word. The original “Mad Man” advertising guru David Ogilvy,  in an internal memo to Ogilvy & Mather employees in 1982, told his staff never to use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally or judgmentally. A whole new definition, corporate jargon, is described as using sometimes-unwieldy elaborations of common English phrases, acting to conceal the real meaning of what is being said. Ogilvy defined jargon words as “hallmarks of a pretentious ass”.
  1. An acronym. Anything using letters can be an acronym.  It’s not just reserved for scientific terms or names of organizations.  It can be something as simple as “E.D.” or “CFRE” or “FTE” or “FY” or “ROI” or “YTD” (and these are acronyms used all the time by nonprofits in their literature).  Acronyms will often stop a reader dead in their tracks if they’re not universally understood.
  1. An over-used phrase.  When phrases pertain so universally as to become essentially meaningless, this is a form of jargon. (The same principle applies to “buzzwords”; while these are not offensive to everyone, you should be aware that some people go ballistic at their very mention).  Examples of over use in the nonprofit world include: “these are trying economic times”; “making a difference”; “tradition of caring”, and “changing the world.” If you don’t believe this can be less than effective, check out this post from the Non-Profit Humour blog (it’s seriously hilarious, and makes its point).
Jargon is bad because it deters understanding.   Jargon can make it take longer for folks to appreciate what you’re trying to say.  Not everyone will stop to do research in order to comprehend your intended meaning. Most, in fact, will simply give up. Others may pretend to understand; then they won’t act because they really had no clear idea what you were talking about. And all your efforts will have gone to waste. Your goal is to communicate, not to confuse, annoy or anger.
Comb your prose for jargon before you publish anything. This includes your next fundraising letter, newsletter, annual report, case statement, blog post or anything intended for distribution via social media. Don’t forget social media! It’s easy to fall into acronym use when you only have 140 characters. Yet, even though the word comes from old French meaning ‘chatter of birds’, I’d suggest keeping it out of your tweets. Especially on social media, people are looking for simple, quickly grasped content to make it easy to form a split-second decision as to whether to share it.

If folks won’t understand it, dump it. If it sounds stuffy, pretentious or stilted, dump it.  If there’s anything in it that only people in your industry would fully appreciate or understand, dump it. If what you’re saying could apply to a hundred other charities and is not uniquely you, dump it. This is another tip from David Ogilvy: “Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it.  Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

Jargon will fail to differentiate you from your competition. You can’t stand out by using jargon, buzzwords and pablum. Jargon won’t help search engines find you either.  How many others are trying to ‘change the world’?  I’ll tell you: Google says 2,490,000,000. Remember: you have a mission and product or service you’re trying to convey as unique.
What are the worst examples of jargon you’ve heard (or found yourself using)?
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  1. The better we get at something the more acronyms and jargon we use without even thinking about it. I always remind myself when I'm doing any sort of training to appeal to the newest listener and write my presentation as if they have only a basic idea of what I'm talking about. Great post!

  2. Great suggestion Natasha. Thanks!

  3. This is a great topic. When I review our letters to donors, I will sometimes have an uninformed party read the content to see if they understand and are impacted. It is amazing how language can be so familiar. I also try to read copy out loud. This sometimes forces me to interact with the text differently. Great post.

  4. Awesome post and a wonderful reminder as I know I’m guilty of sometimes using jargon. Jargon that I despise inlcudes “sweat equity” and “best practices.”

  5. Admittedly, I'm horrible when it comes to philanthropy/fundraising language. Cultivation, stewardship, and recognition. These words actually have so much meaning behind them and yet it's hard for me sometimes to slow down and explain so there is shared meaning. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. This is really a good point Emily. I've sometimes had board members and volunteers look at me askance when I've used the word 'cultivation.' They don't like the idea of being cultivated!

  7. Good points David. Reading copy aloud is often a good way to weed out the jargon, not to mention awkward and stilted phrasing. Thanks!

  8. I'm guilty of "best practices" as well. Shall we just say "stuff that other folks do that works!"?

  9. This should be posted on the desktop of every person who generates content for nonprofit organizations. Then force them to read it at least once a week. It's too easy to become complacent about the words you choose to speak to your audience. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. My pleasure.
    And here's a cool Jargon Finder resource another reader passed along that I thought I'd share:

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