One of my favorite movies ever, The Princess Bride, also contains one of my favorite quotes ever:
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
If you’ve done much browsing of nonprofit websites, received materials in the mail from a cause you may or may not support, or signed up to receive updates from an organization in your Gmail inbox, you’ll notice a pattern emerging in how most mission-driven organizations express themselves:
They love jargon.
Not the same jargon for every organization, mind you — although organizations with similar causes tend to use similar language. Unlike Vezzini, they likely do know what those words mean… but odds are, not everyone does.
This makes nonprofits like the vast majority of groups, of course: communities often derive a significant degree of comfort and connection from the terminology and messages they share, whether they’re fundraising or selling products — or even just talking fly fishing.
Unfortunately, this “in language” often leaves outsiders feeling excluded from the conversations these groups are having — which makes it tough to bring anyone new into the fold, or generate support for your cause.
And if that language doesn’t really speak to what your organization does, or who you really are, or what your staff / clients / volunteers / donors care about, then you’re doubly in trouble. If you ask every level of an organization how they share the organization’s story, you’ll often get a lot of different answers, expressed in vastly different language — with a particularly large divide between the public and private voices.
Which means that, both internally and externally, you’re using words that don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean… and don’t really say what you want to be saying.
Take a close look at a couple of the pieces you use to communicate internally (what you send or distribute to your staff, to your board, to loyal volunteers) and a couple pieces you use to communicate externally (via your fundraising collateral or website to potential donors and supporters), and ask yourself a couple of questions:
1. If I didn’t know anything about what I do, would the words I’m using to talk about it inform and enlighten me… or leave me in the dark?
Don’t assume people will dig deeper to figure out confusing terms or concepts. It’s not their job to figure out what you do — it’s your job to make it plain to them. This goes for your internal conversations, too, when you’re equipping volunteers to speak to potential supporters and donors. Nothing undermines an ask faster than an inability to leave the script behind.
2. Are the messages we’re equipping people to share designed to be relevant to people who are just learning about what we do — or only to those of us already on board? And do the messages match at different levels of our organization?
You know why you care about your cause, or you wouldn’t be involved. And that’s likely the case for your supporters, too. But why should it matter to anyone else? What aspects of your cause align with their values and interests? How does your work change the world around them? And if I asked five other people in your organization, would their answers mesh with yours to provide me with a solid picture of your mission?
Using jargon to describe your work and your passions is a normal temptation. We all do it, and often without thinking twice. But when your goal is to bring other people alongside and include them in what you do, that language you’ve adopted to belong in your community can end up creating a wall between you and your goals.
What could you do to be more clear in how you express your mission — and how you train others to share it?