Don’t worry! We’re not suggesting that nonprofit organizations need to wash their mouths out with soap. In fact, most of the nonprofits we know and deal with are really kind of squeaky clean. So why are we suggesting they need to watch their language?
Most nonprofit organizations tend to develop their own internal language. To be fair, most for profit businesses do it, too, but it seems to be more of an issue for nonprofits. It could be due to the fact that nonprofits tend to attract employees that are passionate about the same thing. They’re kind of on the same wavelength. One of them can start a sentence and another one can finish it. If you work for a nonprofit organization it’s likely that you eat and drink and breathe your corporate mission and vision. And that’s a good thing—until it’s time to talk to somebody outside of the organization.
You may have some very passionate supporters in your constituency, but it’s doubtful if they are as immersed in your corporate culture as you are. Most of them are not waiting by their mailbox or in front of their computer monitor for your next communication. Don’t assume they “get” what you’re talking. You may know that the acronym “ABC” stands for your Always Boosting Confidence program—but they may not. And if your constituents are new to your organization they may not know (or care) who your CEO is, or who his predecessor was.
When you communicate, use their language—not your own. Think about how your audience would describe what you do—not how your executive board would describe it. This is really critical when it comes to optimizing your content for search engine optimization because people will look for you based on the way they describe you, not the way you describe yourself.
When you talk about what your organization does, don’t try to make it sound lofty or erudite. Describe it in the simplest possible terms—without losing the meaning. And if you really want to communicate what you’re all about, tell stories that illustrate it rather than delivering philosophical explanations. You can argue with a philosophy. It’s hard to argue with a story.
Here’s a little test. Take three words or phrases that are regularly used and understood within your organization. Ask someone outside your organization (who doesn’t know it well) to define what those words and phrases mean. Does their definition match what you mean when you use those words?
Let us know how that goes!