WTF? Four-letter words you CAN say at a nonprofit

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If your nonprofit organization is like most, your mission statement doesn't include the line: "We are the generation that will make late stage cancer diagnosis F*cking History."

For some Canadian charities, the use of unexpected or attention-getting words is an effective strategy to build brand awareness for a good cause. For others, it's a powerful way to connect followers on their own terms.

Vancouver's F*** Cancer is one of those organizations. It's been turning heads since their provocative t-shirts first caught attention online. With a mandate to reach out to Generation Y about early cancer detection, F*** Cancer explains their use of the F-word with: "If there's ever a time to use the word, it's now."

What started in 2009 with a single t-shirt made for a cancer patient has grown to an online movement active on communities like Facebook and Twitter. While there's no doubt that the novelty of having a t-shirt, sticker or pair of cufflinks with an expletive on it is irresistible to young people, the movement has generated positive action beyond the shopping cart.

With the support of celebrity advocate Sophia Bush, the organization raised the most money in the Mozilla Firefox Holiday Challenge, earning a bonus $25,000 donation. A recent initiative was a 30-day fitness challenge asking young people to be active for the month of February. Participants are expected to donate (and confess on Twitter or Facebook) when they "cheat" by missing work-outs.

Their Facebook community is also safe space for members to share personal stories and express anger and frustration about cancer's impact on their lives.

The conversational nature of social networks like Facebook means many communications professionals have adopted a more relaxed tone when engaging with followers on social media.

For the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), the most effective way to approach serious issues means using real language in context. With events like One Night Stand Discussion Group, ACT is known for the occasional eyebrow-raising, clever, and funny tweet or Facebook post.

Adam Ferraro, ACT Communications Coordinator, explains: "We realize that relying on clinical language isn't always engaging and the use of honest, sex positive language connects more effectively with the communities we serve."

"We're not dishing out an F-bomb with every message, just when it suits the campaign. ACT has a reputation for creating captivating and ground-breaking communication and educational material, like our Attack of the Cursed Syphilis campaign, or our recent resilience campaign celebrating the strength of the gay community, we want our messages to be bold and accessible."

ACT's supporters largely react positively to the organization's use of down-to-earth, informal language. "We've had very few people complain. It's in the organization's history to push the boundaries when discussing these topics, regardless if the message is being delivered in a tweet or an outreach campaign."

It doesn't have to be a word on George Carlin's Seven Words You Can't Say On TV list to ruffle feathers. In some school boards, "I heart boobies!" plastic wristbands benefiting Save a Breast Foundation caused enough controversy for the popular fundraising items to be banned as inappropriate for American students.

In Canada, Rethink Breast Cancer's signature gala fundraiser, Boobyball, will be celebrating its 11th anniversary this year. Rethink Breast Cancer's mission is to create bold campaigns that "speak fearlessly to the unique needs of young (or youngish) women."

Watch Rethink's cheeky video celebrating ten years of "saving the boobies":

Rethink Executive Director MJ DeCoteau is proud to share that the name "Boobyball" receives a positive response from people of all genders and ages. "It usually brings a smile to people's faces and a compliment about how fun and clever the name is for a breast cancer fundraiser. We find Canadians understand our work and the role we play in the breast cancer world."

With campaigns like Save the Boobs and the Your Man Reminder mobile application, Rethink has a reputation for pushing boundaries in Canada.

It's been a different story in the United States, where the organization's attention-getting use of humour and sexually provocative images caught the attention of major media pundits.

"When Save the Boobs went viral and ended up being a media sensation in the US (getting coverage on Good Morning America, the View, CNN and even Jay Leno), reactions from the US were extremely polarized.

"We were flooded with congratulatory emails from young breast cancer survivors wanting to start Rethink chapters in the States but we also got tons of angry hate mail from the right-wing Christian fundamentalist faction. Some of the reactions were even homophobic, telling us we were disgusting for showing women ogling other women's breasts."

What's considered controversial imagery in the United States doesn't seem to provoke quite as strong a reaction from Canadians. This October, four volunteers took a page from Femen's playbook and bared their breasts in downtown Toronto to promote the upcoming Boobyball. The reaction from Torontonians was mild, but amused.

If the word "Booby" didn't have too many Canadians clutching their pearls, the word "Slut" certainly did.

In the last 10 months, Toronto's SlutWalk has grown from a single-day event of protest against a police officer's comment that women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized to an international awareness movement.

SlutWalk Toronto re-appropriated the word "slut" for a wider purpose...but it didn't happen without heated public debate.

Colleen Westendorf, SlutWalk Toronto communications coordinator, welcomes discussion about the event's name. "The use of the word slut, and our use of the word slut, is an ongoing conversation, with many stakeholders, and no simple answers. But I think everyone who understands what our organization is about is able to get behind that slut-shaming is not ok (also known as sex-shaming), and can acknowledge the connections between this and sexual violence and victim-blaming."

Facebook is the most active hub for SlutWalk Toronto's community, a 24/7 source of discourse about issues affecting women, with hundreds of posts, comments, "likes" and shares of content every week.

For Westendorf and her fellow SlutWalk organizers, "the challenge is always separating the criticisms that are legitimate and discussions that need to happen, from trolls and derailers."

Supporters and critics alike are encouraged to challenge and debate what the word "slut" means. SlutWalk Toronto also emphasizes that the meaning can't assumed to be the same across international SlutWalk groups. SlutWalk organizers in cities around the world may use different language or tone entirely to speak to participants in a cultural context that makes sense to them.

Westendorf adds, "We want to talk about it — and we want everyone to be talking about it, which is why we have (for now) stuck with our name — why it hurts, how it's damaging, and why a reactive, local initiative that started in the interest of taking the sting out of slut as a tool of violence and oppression had so much resonance internationally for so many people."

What's your digital conversation style?

Most nonprofits won't go so far as to use this kind of language in their day-to-day communications, but many use a different tone for social spaces. There's a growing group of communications professionals using slang, or cheeky language to reach out to their communities online.

The use of slang doesn't have to be as dramatic as the F-bomb or mention of "boobies." It's common to see charities and nonprofits use "Hey", "THX", "LOL" or emoticons online. That's an informality you won't often see in direct mail.

Some charities are concerned about making errors online, especially on emerging channels like social media. Fear can result in a stiff, corporate voice online. Do your tweets read like excerpts from your annual report?

Anyone who has searched Google for "social media for nonprofits" will be familiar with the perennial advice to be human. Is it time to take that advice to the next level and determine how "human" your organizational voice should be?

Ferraro notes that ACT's followers appreciate real talk: "The reactions we get regarding language use are mostly in support of it. It's fun to have a tweet show up on your weekday morning streetcar ride that engages you to learn about serious topics in a light-hearted and fun way."

Is your organizational voice more informal on social media? What's your digital conversation style? Give us your feedback on Facebook this week. But hold the F-bombs, please!

Have you updated your profile?

Last month, Imagine Canada launched, a website tool for individuals to easily access information about the over 85,000 registered charities in Canada.

One of the features of the website is the ability for charities to include their Twitter, Facebook and/or YouTube presence on their profile.

Some examples of listings with social media handles included on the charity's profile page include SickKids Foundation and North York Community House.

Want to add your organization’s Twitter feed or Facebook posts to your profile too? Register to take advantage of the opportunity to add your social media handles, upload mission statements, documents, annual reports and additional program information.

Claire Kerr is the director of digital philanthropy at Artez Interactive. A nonprofit veteran, Claire has worked for charitable organizations in the economic development, education, and fundraising sectors. Connect with her on Twitter or on LinkedIn, or in person over a double-double at Tim Hortons.

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

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