Every industry has its own unique jargon, but let’s be honest: nonprofits tend to be adrift in catchphrases. Some common ones spring to mind: LOI (letter of inquiry or intent); RFP (request for proposal); ROI (return on investment); NGO (non-governmental organization); NPO (nonprofit organization); soft ask; donor fatigue; innovation; donor-centric; etc. After a while, it all becomes word salad.

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Most Overused Nonprofit Jargon

Visiting various nonprofit websites can be illuminating. Most unwittingly weave jargon into their pages.  Take this example from a small non-profit’s “About Us” page:

ABC organization provides evidence-based services to support and empower survivors of all types of human trafficking.

How about “proven” as a substitute?

Or this one:

ABC University strives to support people who want to become impactful educators by providing an affordable path to earning a teaching degree.

What about “successful”?

Or how about this:

ABC has transformed the lives of over 12,000 women by distributing more than $5,000,000 in clothing and accessories. We offer at-risk women job readiness tips, professional attire and post-employment assistance to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. 

The term “transformed” or “transformational” has become a reliably-used word for many nonprofits. Ho-hum. And at-risk—at-risk for what, exactly? Being stung by a yellow jacket?  Wouldn’t it be plainer to use the term low-income? And the term “economic self-sufficiency” is so overused—why not replace it with something easier to understand, such as “financial stability”?

Jargon: Lost in Translation

Psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon said it well: “A wealth of information provides a poverty of attention.” His point is that being bombarded with useless bits of information is distracting. So, let’s not fall prey to the temptation to write content that reads like a grant proposal or a master’s thesis. Below, we offer three simple tips to make your nonprofit copy sing.

1. Cut the Fluff

Read your copy aloud to actually hear how it flows. If you find a word or a phrase that sounds pompous, extravagant, or hard to understand, find something more simple to replace it with.  Follow the simple guidance of the classic guide, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Clearer and cleaner are always better.

2. Share Your Copy With Somebody—Or Let It Marinate Overnight

Not everyone who writes for a nonprofit has an actual editor and it’s nearly impossible to edit your own work past a certain point. Ask a colleague to read your copy and offer feedback. Or take the advice of late, great advertising guru and original “Mad Man”, : Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it.  Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.”

3. Involve the Reader.

Write in a friendly, accessible style focusing on the reader. Sure, you’re writing about your nonprofit and the good work it does, but design content so it draws the reader in and makes them want to learn more. That means catchy subheadings (people skim, after all), clean copy (see Tips One and Two above), graphics that evoke emotion and end with a compelling call to action.


No, not the rock band—this acronym has been around forever and stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Rude, but true. The cleaner and easier to read your copy is, the more effective it is. Sure, Search Engine Optimization is important, but cutting out jargon, buzzwords or even commonly-used acronyms (think CFRE, ROI, ACFRE, etc.) that are unfamiliar to a reader is essential.

Further reading and resources:

  1. A Wealth Of Information Creates A Poverty Of Attention
  2. How to Write Engaging Content for the Web
  3. Don’t Make These 3 Mistakes When Writing Content
  4. The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Elements of Style
  5. David Ogilvy: Facts & Related Content