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Do you speak nonprofit? A primer on sector buzzwords and jargon

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Leveraging funds. Capacity-building. Community-driven action. Enabling populations. Collaboration. Participatory action. Anti-oppression.

Just some examples of a multitude of terms regularly thrown around by professionals in the nonprofit sector, these buzzwords can be reasonably categorized as industry speak, or just plain old jargon.

Nonprofit jargon, like the vernacular of any sector or workplace, can provide a sense of unity and belonging to individuals and organizations working within a particular framework, but language of this sort can also prove imprecise, clichéd or alienating.

So why has certain terminology become so prevalent in the nonprofit sphere, and what impact is it having on both those on the frontlines and the fringes of the sector?

Sources of jargon

According to Graham Smart, associate professor of Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies at Carleton University, the nonprofit sector is by no means unique in its accumulation of jargon.

“People in any workplace develop a specialized terminology to get their work done efficiently,” he says.

“Part of joining a ‘tribe’ is to learn its jargon...to feel part of it is to learn the language of that organization, that field.”

Arguably, what’s specific to the charitable sector is that, with most nonprofits frequently engaged in a balancing act between appealing to funders and making sure clients’ needs are met, the language used — both spoken and written — can reflect this tension.

Melissa Muller has worked in the nonprofit sector in Toronto for a number of years, as a grant-writer, direct service worker and in policy. She currently does communications work for an agency in the city, and says she sees two faces of nonprofit language: government-geared language and sentimental, client-tailored language.

“When dealing with government, the jargon is filled with action words and split infinitives. Everything is: ‘We must collaboratively work,’ ‘We must actively progress...’ On the other side, when putting out literature or speaking to clients [or the public], there’s a lot of appealing to passion. Some of this language is, to me, maudlin.”

She points to expressions like reaching out, change-making, sector voices, and reflection and renewal, as examples of touchy-feely or new-agey phrases meant to engage clients, often in written material.

To her, this language, though well-intentioned, often seems unsophisticated or devoid of meaning.

“It’s not to say that I devalue people’s passion for their causes; I appreciate that,” Muller maintains.

“But...as a writer, I feel you shouldn’t have to use passionate words or lots of exclamation marks to explain passion...if you’ve got evidence and a good, compelling, well-written piece, it should be impassioned [without resorting to overly sentimental language].”

John Stapleton, a former Ontario public servant in the area of social assistance policy, and a current social policy consultant, has a somewhat different theory on the source of contemporary nonprofit jargon.

He says much of the language used has taken on a corporate tenor, attributable to the fact that, in the past 30 years, with the government increasingly calling on nonprofits to provide services it had once offered, the sector has felt “uncomfortable in its own skin” like “the poor cousin of government.”

To flex its muscles and to compensate for the discomfort of constantly having to ask government for funding, the sector has taken cues from the corporate world; their language has become business-oriented, and there’s a sense of needing to convey to donors that, like businesses, they are lean and efficient.

“Now you get all these nonprofits sending pie diagrams showing almost no money goes to administration — that comes from the language of business,” Stapleton says.

He adds that terms like value proposition, upstream and downstream, shareholders, management by outcomes, accountability frameworks, brand — other business crossovers — are further proof that corporate language is permeating the sector.

What’s interesting, he notes, is that nonprofits have in many ways appropriated the language and tools of business planning, but not quite the values, insofar as charities, unlike businesses, continue to prioritize social good over profit.

The disparity between corporate-influenced terminology and more community-oriented values can, then, feel a bit inconsistent.

Alienation and cliché

At a recent youth employment conference held in Ontario, Sabrina Poirier, program manager at the Halifax-based Second Chance Program, a social entrepreneurship program for youth, noticed other participants continuously referring to just-in-time learning.

Though prepared to ignore the unfamiliar term, before joining a panel discussion, a facilitator reminded Poirier to reference how just-in-time learning pertained to her organization.

Trapped, she turned to a woman nearby and sheepishly asked for the definition, quickly discovering that the concept itself — in this context, waiting to teach a client something until a need to know or sense of motivation arises — was actually a key tenet of Second Chance.

“I was a little embarrassed...if someone had asked me [what I call it] I would’ve said, it’s the ‘flexibility in learning,’ Poirier explains.

“I found it really interesting that I’d been asked to speak on a panel about this concept and nobody had taken the time to say, 'Are you comfortable with this term?'”

The incident demonstrates how jargon can be unclear or exclusive — arbitrary, even. Poirier notes that, especially for those new to the sector, or volunteers freshly exposed to an organization’s culture, jargon can be alienating.

Further, overuse can quite quickly lead to misuse.

“To say something like, ‘Let’s be accountable and transparent’ — even if you truly mean it, other people might go, ‘Oh god, here it comes, an eye roll moment, one more person telling me that,” she says.

“You can’t control everyone who’s going to hear your message. Eventually, people will get tired of hearing the same words over and over, or someone will mess them up and use words in a way that gives them a negative connotation.”

Stapleton says the corporatizing of the sector, the appropriation of branding, can alienate traditional, ‘mom and pop-type’ volunteers, who wish to help deliver services to certain populations without having to act as representatives of some, “big, community behemoth created out of a church basement”— a byproduct of adopting apparatuses of business.

Jargon and identity

Jargon can be exclusionary, but when used appropriately it can also foster community, helping people rally around a common cause.

Poirier says: “There are good elements of speaking a common language, especially if things are explained clearly or are written for the people using services...in some cases, people will get behind you more quickly if they see you’re using certain [recognizable] keywords — sometimes you do need those terms to set a light bulb off, or for people within the sector to go, ‘Oh, so they’re doing what we’re doing.’”

Muller acknowledges that sentimental jargon may be beneficial as it can help nonprofit staff working on the ground with challenging populations feel validated regarding their difficult day-to-day work. Still, she wonders how effective it is in translating harsh realities to the public.

“It’s probably alienating for the average person to hear about challenging or extremely vulnerable people — this appealing to sentiment can, I think, exacerbate that divide.”

While he believes the sector should become more comfortable with itself, Stapleton says there’s nothing inherently wrong with adopting business terms or processes—in fact, it can often be useful for organizations to gauge their outcomes and scope in this manner.

All in all, jargon is a complicated beast. While its presence in any sector is inevitable, and in many ways, positive, it’s important for those working in nonprofits to be highly aware of the language they use.

That means not assuming one’s colleagues, volunteers or clients are familiar with expressions deemed common, but also regularly checking in with fellow staff — and with oneself — to ensure terms are being used accurately, rather than superficially.

The unofficial nonprofit jargon top ten

  1. Capacity-building
  2. Donor-centric
  3. Alignment
  4. Self-sufficiency
  5. Logic Model
  6. Accountability Framework/Matrix/Model
  7. Community-driven action
  8. Target(ed)
  9. Impact
  10. Stakeholder

What other words should be on this list? Share in the comments below!

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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pauln@canadahelps.org pauln@canadahelps.org
Prepare yourself for the Baby-boomer "philanthropic" tidal wave - terms like "social-capital" , "social-investment" and the creation of "social-profit" are going to overshadow the concept of "donating".
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