In the nonprofit world, it is easy to become immersed in the language of the sector. We all have our favorite phrases or organizational shorthand words that make internal communication easier and more productive. But when these words are used externally it leads to confusion and misunderstanding. At the very least, it can make a donor feel uniformed or inexperienced in your mission.

Fundraiser Jeff Brooks recently shared a story that is a prime example of the dangers of jargon:

A few years ago, I visited projects in northern Uganda on behalf of a nonprofit. One day, I was told we were going to “visit Wat/San.” 

“Who’s Watson?” I asked, labelling myself as the newbie… 

In the international relief and development sector, it means “water and sanitation programs.” It’s useful because water and sanitation programs are common and various. Having a short way of referring to them speeds up and smooths out a lot of communications… 

And back at headquarters, everyone but the new intern knows all about Wat/San.  

But do the donors?

Probably not one in a thousand.

It’s fine for an organization to use familiar language among themselves, but we should not use the same jargon when talking to our donors. We want them to feel part of the work of the charity, to feel comfortable with the communication, and to be drawn into the mission. Using internal “company” language or acronyms they don’t understand is a quick way to alienate them.

To ensure that you are not using jargon, consult outside individuals. Get feedback from coworkers from a different department or friends based in a different industry – anyone who can give a different perspective– to ensure that you are communicating to donors clearly and effectively.

As fundraisers, it’s our job to reach donors where they are at – not to force them to come to us. The burden is on the charity to make the communication warm, welcoming, and understandable. By speaking their language, instead of ours, our efforts will be more effective, and donors will feel more included in the mission of the organization.