Donor-Centric Language: Efficacy and Ethics

The language we use matters. When is donor-centric language an effective way of garnering support, and when do fundraisers cross the line in communicating real issues with transparency and authenticity?

A long time ago (and yes, sometimes still today), nonprofits centered themselves in their communications to donors. Fundraising appeals were very – to put it bluntly –  “look at what we’re doing” and “give us money.” Organization-centric nonprofits glorified themselves, did not acknowledge the contributions of their donors nor honor the donors’ role in creating change.

In recent decades, thanks to the work of Penelope Burke and others, a movement took place to de-center nonprofits and put donors in the spotlight. Communications became more about the donor: “Look at the amazing impact YOU are helping to create,” and, “YOU could be a hero in this child’s life…” This strategy works—at least in terms of dollars raised. Donors responded better to this new language and gave more money, more consistently, for longer amounts of time.

However, a new movement is underway to shift the donor from the center and put another group of stakeholders in its place: those who are impacted by the nonprofit’s work.  By using language that glorifies the donor, critics argue that beneficiaries have lost their agency and appear without an active role in the solutions to the problems they experience.

In this article I explore how far we should go in our use of donor-centric language. What if the language we use effectively stigmatizes the people whose stories we tell? Does the end justify the means, or should we be questioning the means as well?

Let’s take a deep dive into some of the ways donor-centric language shows up in our lexicon and explore where there may be opportunities and consequences.

The way we talk about the people we help

Sometimes crafting donor-centric language is just a simple matter of replacing technical jargon with terms that laypeople will understand. The term “food insecurity” became, among organizations, a way of describing a condition in which people lack reliable access to food for reasons like poverty or geography, but the term is not widely used in colloquial language. Describing these same people as “starving” may be an over exaggeration, but “hungry” could be accurate.

However, not all examples are this straightforward. Sometimes we struggle with the right lexicon when certain terms are offensive to the people they describe. For instance, disability-rights activities have agreed to do away with the terms “handicapped” and “disabled” in favor of “person with disabilities.” That phrasing puts the person first, not the adjective. Those serving communities with addiction issues would not use “drunkard” to describe someone who experiences alcoholism. These are examples of language that reduce a person to a singular experience, and thus downplay the complexity of their lives and situations.

Words like “at-risk,” “low-resource,” and “underserved” are still widely used, but are beginning to be questioned as they seem to only highlight inequality without challenging the systems that have perpetuated it. Substitutes like “at-hope”, “caste apartheid” and “people experiencing material poverty” have gained traction in certain groups, but aren’t utilized enough in the broad population.

There is also tension with the word “beneficiary,” one that I admittedly use, but sparingly. Should a group of people be defined by their role as recipients of services from a nonprofit? Other terms used are “clients,” “customers,”  “participants,” or even “end-users.” To me, these also feel a bit transactional rather than relational, but I support a reimagining of terms that don’t reflect an inherent power dynamic.

Finding the right words to increase comprehension among your audience, as well as accurately depict people in your stories can be a challenge. Be sure that the descriptions and terms you use are supported by the people in your programs.

The way we talk about the places we work

Another issue arises when language creates a psychological distance or “others” a group. In international development, we often refer to the implementation site as somewhere “in the field.” Of course, scientists use the term “field research” to describe the work that is done outside of a laboratory, but when we talk about humanitarian aid, “in the field” is often used to describe sites not merely outside the office but, specifically, in the Global South.

When we work directly with people in certain neighborhoods or districts in our own cities, we do not say we spent the day “in the field.” So the field must be foreign – but could “the field” ever refer to a site in say, Italy, Singapore, or Britain? If you think that sounds weird, it is probably because you are associating “the field” with poverty, a lack of infrastructure, or remoteness. Theses are the nuances this term conveys. Terms describing other nations as “third world” or “undeveloped” also have problematic associations. What about describing the “rough neighborhood” in your city? What images do these evoke? Likely those informed by racism and stereotyping.

Our audiences will already have many assumptions about the places where we do our work. The terms we use need to enhance their comprehension of the site, not feed into stereotypes.

The way we talk about the work we do

The verbs we use to describe our work have the potential to give our organizations and donors full ownership in creating change, while removing agency from people experiencing that change. For instance, in Global Health there is a movement to stop using the word “serve.” To many in the sector, “serving” sounds condescending and doesn’t reflect the work many NGOs are doing in collaboration with community partners and local leaders. I seldom use the word “serve” due to this prevalent viewpoint in my sector.

Other organizations take issue with the verb “empower.” As one communications professional explained to me, “We are not ’empowering’ people. They already have the power. We are helping them harness it.” While I agree with his viewpoint, I do on occasion use the verb “empower” though I am conscious of its nuances.

One verb I use all the time is “help,” as you can see from  this article. There are some professionals who do not like the word “help” and make a point to use other verbs. I agree that it’s best to be specific when talking about our work. “Help” is a word that can be used in a condescending way. It can also be so vague as to not reflect our true impact. In my case, when I’m presenting to an audience, I need to use general words to be inclusive of all the different professions, organizations, interventions, and theories of change.  I make a conscious choice to use that word, and intentionally contextualize the verb in a way that (hopefully) mitigates its more problematic nuances. 

The way we talk about the people who help us

Lastly, I want to get at the heart of donor-centric communication: the way we address donors. We should also be thoughtful about how we use the word “you” in our fundraising communications. While I believe that a donor’s contributions should be recognized and celebrated, we need to be careful that we are not giving them the impression that they alone are responsible for determining and implementing a solution.

In his provocative new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas explains the irony in glorifying philanthropists as agents of change, and attributing all social good to their contributions:

“But there is another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are.”

While Giridharadas provides a perspective that is much needed in the field of philanthropy, I differ from him in that I believe nonprofits also bear responsibility for upholding an inequitable status quo. By only asking for money and keeping our donors superficially aware of the causes they support, we are failing to leverage the full power of their partnership,  and involve them more actively and  intentionally in systemic change.

We can being changing things, in a small way, through the language we use in our fundraising communications. So, I’ll leave you with this question:

Should we continue to speak the language our donors understand, or should we be challenging their understanding?

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