How jar­gon destroys non-prof­it fundrais­ing and marketing

Do you use a lot of jar­gon in your fundrais­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions? If so, it’s prob­a­bly time for a rethink!

Written by
Claire Axelrad
November 03, 2022
© Vasilevskiy Sergey from Getty Images via

I hate jargon. With a passion.

Hate it. Hate it. Hate it.

Just. Can’t. Stand. It! 

Yes, I guess you could call it a pet peeve.

But really, why would you ever use jargon if you wanted to truly communicate with someone?

Just check out the definition in the Cambridge Dictionary:

‘Language used by a particular group of people, especially in their work, and which most other people do not understand.’

Jargon equals a failure to communicate

When you talk to people in words they don’t understand, really, what’s the point?

Are you just trying to make yourself look smart?

Because, trust me, that’s not how it comes across.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

People get really, really annoyed when you talk to them in a manner that seems:

  • pretentious
  • know-it-all
  • like you’re trying to prove to them they’re not as smart as you are

That’s not smart. Not at all.

Wait, you say… that’s not what you’re trying to do?

Are you sure?

Does your non-profit have a jargon problem?

I review a lot of non-profit copy.

Direct mail fundraising letters. Email appeals. Newsletters. Blog posts. Social media copy. Annual reports. Case statements. Website copy. Landing page copy. You name it.

Guess what? The lion’s share of drafts I’m asked to review is incomprehensible to me. I have to spend five to 10 minutes, or much more, on the non-profit’s website to even begin to understand what they really do so I can help them communicate their message more effectively. I don’t say this to be mean. Alas, it’s just a sad truth.

The culprit? Jargon.

  • insider speak
  • technical language
  • business language
  • buzz words
  • legalese
  • stilted, formal grammar
  • dense and heavy text
  • acronyms

Jargon is the opposite of constituent-centred writing

I understand how jargon happens.

You’ve got words and terms you use all the time in the office, and you really love them. Your supporters generally do not.

They are words you probably don’t consider jargon. Like empower, diversity, and culture of philanthropy. Like client, case management, aspirationalintegrated, and cross-departmental.

[Check here for a list of common business buzzwords.]

These may not seem like jargon to you, but donors don’t think the way you do. These organisation-focused words and terms of art make folks stop in their tracks to try to figure out what you mean.

  • Donors won’t want to think about people needing their help as ‘clients’. That’s an objectifying word.
  • ‘Case management’ is a process; nothing moving or emotional about it.
  • ‘Aspirational,’ ‘integrated,’ and ‘cross departmental’ are all big words that require definition.

Maybe they don’t seem like big, vague, confusing stop-in-your-tracks words to you. But, trust me, they can be conveyed much more simply and directly.

Why jargon is a problem for your non-profit

Let me share an example that popped up in the news. Former USA Defence Secretary James Mattis wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining why he resigned from that position. I dare you to read it without your eyes glazing over. And I dare you to understand it without taking some time for study and reflection (that’s time most of today’s readers don’t have.) Here’s an excerpt:

‘Using every skill I had learned during my decades as a Marine, I did as well as I could for as long as I could… When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defence of our Constitution…
A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.’

What’s missing here is a clear, direct explanation of the meaning underlying ‘as well as I could for as long as I could’. What folks really longed to know is what advice he offered, and what the President said in response. And… what was it about this response that caused the Secretary to feel he needed to resign? ‘No longer resonated’ is awfully vague. And, yes, it’s pretty buzz-wordy.

I understand how this happens. It’s tempting to show off. To demonstrate all your wisdom. To show you are the expert and can really go deep into whatever topic you are writing about. But…

  • people don’t want a lecture from you
  • or a term paper
  • or anything that causes them to have to open up their dictionary or seek additional reference material to understand the meaning of your writing

So what are you going to do?

© Lucky 336 from Getty Images Signature via

Stop being a lazy writer. Just. Stop. It.

Jargon is a shorthand meant for people who are together every day. When it’s faster to use the acronym because it’s familiar, not foreign.

Try to remember what it was like when you first began working at your organisation. It’s likely people threw around all sorts of unfamiliar shorthand you didn’t comprehend. You had to be there a while to begin to understand what they were talking about. Until this new language became familiar, you felt like a stranger in a strange land.

That’s how your prospective supporters feel when you write to them using this same foreign language. It’s not a good feeling.

Understand, I’m not suggesting you stop using jargon in conversations inside your building. However, your fundraising and non-profit marketing messages are external communications. If you want to call a lapsed donor a LYBNT inside your office, go right ahead. As long as you never include the following sentence in a lapsed donor renewal letter:

‘Dear Claire … Our records show you are a LYBNT. Of course, we know you will want to rectify this situation. For that reason, we’ve enclosed a renewal envelope so you can make your gift at your earliest convenience.’

I can hear you thinking: Don’t be ridiculous Claire. We never use technical lingo with our supporters. That’s just silly. But when it comes to terminology about our work, our constituency understands it. They are all highly educated’.

You must trust me on this one

Whether they’re highly educated or not, your readers are going to be stopped cold by professional terminology.

Dead. In. Their. Tracks. 

Even though it doesn’t seem particularly professional to you to drop your terms of art, it is.

People outside your profession don’t talk that way. They don’t think that way. They don’t see things through the same lens as do you and your colleagues.

For example, unless you’re a social worker, you don’t use the term ‘case management’ in your daily conversations. Nor do you think in terms of ‘clients.’ Rather, most folks think in terms of ‘helping’ and ‘people in need.’

Do you see the difference?

[See here for six types of modern jargon you’ll want to avoid in your non-profit marketing and fundraising messaging.]

Jargon equals a failure to communicate redux

To complicate matters, jargon is not just technical language. It’s also buzzwords and phrases.

Among the greatest culprits are phrases used so commonly they have grown meaningless.

  • help us change the world
  • help us restore hope
  • help us empower people

Say, what?

Don’t just sit back, hit copy/paste, and rerun these old, tired phrases. The fact you’ve got them up on your website and have used them in your annual report and previous years’ appeals, does not mean they’re good copy. They’re lazy, nonspecific copy. If your copy could apply to a hundred other organisations, or even half a dozen, you’re not on the right track.

When you use this type of language it takes longer for folks to appreciate what you’re trying to say. How, exactly, are you suggesting your donor prospects help you to accomplish these ends? What distinguishes you from your competition?

Take the time to really think about what you want people to do in this particular instance. Seriously…

  • Would you call a friend and ask them to help change your world today? Or would you ask them if they could give you a lift to the grocery store?
  • Have you ever seen a person who is homeless with a placard that says, ‘Please restore hope?’ Or would a sign that says ‘Hungry. Need food’. likely be more effective?
  • Would you ask your partner to try to empower your kid today? Or would you ask them to help your kid learn to tie their shoes?

Do you see the difference?

Time for a change: leave the jargon at home

To begin the transformation, you must get commitment internally to make this change.

Because if you, the fundraiser, are the only one who understands this concept, your ED (executive director) or board president is going to change all your writing back to jargon. You don’t have time for this.

Once you get commitment, begin to write as if you’re talking to a best friend. Or even to a stranger who doesn’t know anything about your organisation’s mission, vision, or values. Assume nothing about your audience except they are busy. They don’t have time to read what you’re sending to them. If it looks like a lot of work, they’re not going to go there.

Once you’ve written a draft, put it away for a few hours (or a day) and then come back to it. Look at it with a critical eye.

  • Have you slipped into corporate speak?
  • Are you using a lot of big words?
  • Are you using passive voice?
  • Do you have run-on sentences and long paragraphs?
  • Does the writing look like an essay you created for ninth grade (14 to 15-years-old) English class, or is it short, direct, and to the point?

Good writing for fundraising and non-profit marketing copy should be at 4th to 6th grade level (9 to 12-years-old). This isn’t because you’re treating your readers like elementary school kids. It’s because people don’t want to do anything more than skim your copy.

Don’t worry you’re talking down to people or infantilising them. Rather, you’re doing them the favour of making it easy for them to get your point.

Editor’s note: We are grateful to Claire for letting us reproduce this article on SOFII. You can find the original on Claire’s website here.

About the author: Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organisations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP ‘Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year’ award. Claire runs ‘Clairification School’ online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.

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