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Nonprofit Jargon Is on the Rise, but That’s Not a Bad Thing


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It’s the inspiration for a hundred too-accurate lists of “Words and Phrases Everyone Should Please Stop Using ASAP,” the incomprehensible (but extremely accurate) technical terminology we tune out during all-staff meetings, and the verbal tic we all have that makes us wince as soon as we hear it.

We all hate jargon. It’s easy to dunk on, and there are already a hundred great posts out there about what types of language to avoid and why. But if we all agree jargon is the worst, why can’t we get rid of it? Why am I adding yet another “nonprofit jargon” blog to the internet ether?

In many ways, “jargon” has become a catch-all term for words and phrases we just don’t like, but thinking of it this way makes jargon harder to identify and learn from—and harder to make our messaging better as a result. If we’re going to find a jargon-free paradise, we need a better definition of what jargon is and why it doesn’t work. And then we probably need some steps that will help us tackle it.

Jargon is language that works with one audience but not another

At its core, “jargon” is a word or phrase that just can’t do the work we need or expect it to do for our audience.

Often, it’s specialized language members of a professional community use to talk to one another precisely and efficiently. It supports the effective collaboration of professionals in a field; it just doesn’t help communicate with people outside that field. Right now, we’re all getting a pretty hefty dose of medical jargon:

For doctors and public health officials “SARS-CoV-2” is meaningful—it’s the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 for which they’re trying to “lower the rate of transmission.”

For me, a person without a medical degree, “SARS-CoV-2” is a nonsense string of letters, viruses and diseases are… the same thing? And we’re all just trying to “flatten the curve.” I may not know precisely what that means, but I get the gist, the medical community and I have a shared goal, and we’re moving forward.

“SARS-CoV-2” is only jargon when a medical professional says it to me, and I look at them with a blank stare. Just like “systems change,” “capacity building,” and “inquiry-based learning” are only jargon when nonprofit professionals use them with donors and community members who aren’t fully up to speed on the vocabulary we use every day.

Removing jargon is really an act of translation—taking the language of one group and finding ways to share it with another. And while it isn’t in anyone’s job description, becoming a skilled jargon translator is essential for many fundraising and communications professionals. Why? Because…

Smart, effective nonprofits are creating a lot of jargon

As nonprofit work and community organizing have professionalized over the last 60 years, the amount of specialized knowledge in the sector—and the amount of specialized language we use as a result—has expanded exponentially. The examples here are infinite, but a few to get us started:

  • “Theories of change” have gone from implicit and amateur to intentional and sophisticated, drawing on extensive academic research and expertise, as well as a growing awareness of organizations’ social and historical context.
  • More and more nonprofit “incubators,” “think tanks,” and coalition/network-type organizations specialize in “piloting,” “modeling,” and “convening” rather than direct service.
  • Education is its own special jargon factory, with pedagogical models and buzzwords sweeping across the conference circuit and into schools, colleges, and universities.
  • The evolving vocabulary of social change brings terms like “community-centric,” “systems change,” and “equity” into widespread professional circulation, far in front of their general-audience familiarity and resonance.

Ultimately, what’s most clear is that nonprofits and their staffs are smarter than ever. They’re engaging with more people than ever. And that means “nonprofit jargon”—moments when the language we use just doesn’t match our audience—is on the rise. And while more jargon certainly sounds like the stuff of nightmares, it really just means we have better, more complex—and often more exciting—stories to tell about nonprofit work.

Our challenge isn’t to get rid of language we don’t like, so much as to be better translators and educators for more and more audiences. That’s not an easy task, but it’s a fun one, and it’s why I get excited about the wonky, systems change-y cases that come my way.

Below are four steps I use when approaching complex missions, all designed to keep me focused on the heart of my clients’ work and the audiences they’re trying to reach.  

Four steps to telling simple, effective (jargon-free!) stories about complex work

1. Know your jargon.

Identifying when and why we are most likely to slip into language that may not be meaningful to our audiences is the first step towards consistently recognizing and defending against jargon. Keep a special lookout for:

Internal Jargon: Moments when internal language makes it into external communications because you’ve forgotten to adjust your voice for an external audience. If this happens, you and your audience may not share a vocabulary, and you may miss an opportunity to educate them or bring them along.

Fancy Jargon:
Moments when you want to make sure your organization’s work is taken seriously and default to academic or internal language that you hope is perceived as more professional or authoritative. Even if you succeed in impressing your audience, you may not succeed in engaging them and encouraging them to share your message in their own words.

Please-Don’t-Look-Too-Closely Jargon:
Moments when you may not know *exactly* what you’re trying to say yet, and are defaulting to words that invoke the relevant concerns or general feel you’re going for, but don’t articulate a specific, clear impact or effect. When this happens, you’re likely using words you do know to write around something you haven’t found a simple way to articulate yet. And if you can’t be simple and clear, your audience probably can’t be either.

2. Know your audience.

If you’re the main writer on a piece of collateral, remember that not everyone is going to have as close of an eye on the audience-of-the-moment as you are. Even if you write a perfectly clean draft with no jargon, it’s likely that some less-than-clear language will sneak back in during the review process—especially from staff who are used to talking to one another or sector-peers.

Keep your eyes peeled at every stage of the process, remember that your case lives in conversation, and when reviewers make suggestions or additions, adjust language until you can see your target audience adopting and using it themselves. When I’m navigating edits and feedback from multiple stakeholders with different vocabularies, I often ask myself the following simple questions:

  • Who am I writing/talking to?
  • What do I want them to feel and do?
  • Why is this information being added or clarified?
  • As suggested, does it help us reach our communications goal? How can I adjust?

3. Balance the technical with the personal.

While donors and community members will always want to know that your approach is intelligent, proven, and effective, they also want to know what makes your organization and its work unique. Any nonprofit can talk about “leveraging impact” and “making real, structural change.” But not every nonprofit works in your community, with your people.

Make words and phrases that might otherwise feel like jargon meaningful by illustrating them with stories, balancing the big picture impact your organization might track and exhibit quantitatively with everyday reality. This means interviewing your constituents, elevating their individual voices and experiences, and lifting up examples of urgency and impact in your organization’s work that are grounded in your community. 

4. Don’t be afraid to educate.

Sometimes jargon is too internal or too technical, and sometimes it’s a “buzzword” your donor or community has seen too much of in other contexts. But other times, jargon is just a term your audience doesn’t know yet.

Removing jargon can mean defining new terms in ways people connect with and understand, introducing the technical term and then explaining it in everyday-human language. If there’s a word or phrase that feels internal and wonky that you aren’t finding a way around in your communications, consider addressing it directly.

If “systems change” is a term that is core to your organization’s self-concept and mission, dig in and tell your donors why and what it means. This type of education takes time. Often, you’ll go through three or four different iterations of messaging while you find the best way to fully introduce a concept, but engaging with your donors and community members at this level can increase buy-in over time.  

Ultimately, while even I—a person of average height and below average ups—can dunk on jargon, jargon usually represents an opportunity to get to know nonprofit communities on a deeper level and acknowledge that the work they’re doing is more meaningful and nuanced than it’s ever been.

Complex, sophisticated missions may not always be easy to crack, but cracking them is rewarding, and it empowers nonprofits and their constituents with a deeper understanding of their mission. So bring your jargon to the table with pride! And then let’s go to work.

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