Team Spirit: Mobilizing Your Organization for Fundraising Success
August 31, 2016
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September 14, 2016

Watch Your Language! Fundraising Terms that Don’t Say What We Mean

Let’s face it. Fundraising language has some rather unpleasant and almost conspiratorial terms. Terms that make it seem like fundraisers are trying to pull something over on donors and would-be supporters.

Just think about the word “target”. We use this term to talk about an individual or a group, but are these people really under threat of an attack? Would they like to hear themselves referred to as a target by our organization?

Or consider the phrase “acquiring a new donor”. This is a phrase that I use a lot, admittedly, because I got my start at an organization that had a very large direct mail file and that’s just what we called it – acquisition. But we aren’t acquiring people. Donors don’t belong to a program or an organization. Donors are choosing to express their values by giving to your organization. The organization is their vehicle for this expression.

Then there’s “upgrade” and donor “attrition”. These terms have also been used for years to describe donor movements, but they convey such an impersonal action when these actions might very well mean a lot to the donors themselves. Giving more or deciding not to give is a personal choice, not a random, statistical event.

Even the term “moves management” has come under fire. Are we managing our donors like pieces on a chessboard? (We wrote a blog four years ago asking our readers to come up with another name for moves management — the best we came up with was “donor relationship builder”.)

I know picking at these words sounds a bit hypercritical and maybe even a little “politically correct”, but I assure you, when you start talking and thinking about your donors as cogs in a wheel, about efficiency and ratios, you lose that personal connection, that authenticity that it takes to build good relationships.

We recently featured the new report “Fundraising Bright Spots” by Kim Klein and Jeanne Bell and one of the central tenets of successful fundraising common to the organizations featured in that report was that they built authentic relationships with donors; strong, trusting relationships among staff, board and volunteers.

But how can we build authentic relationships when we are using the words “target” “donor efficiency” and “upgrade strategy” behind closed doors of fundraising strategy sessions, while using other language to a donors’ face? How authentic is that?

I’ve thought about this a lot of the years. Will I completely stop using all of these terms? Probably not. They are often useful short hand terms that mean something in the fundraising vernacular.

But you and I have to be conscious of our language because as fundraisers we aren’t creating some master game plan that the donors are lured into. We are partners with our donors in an incredible journey and our language can help us create the path.

I was once at a meeting of the board of an international group and I used the term donor acquisition. The chair, a renowned activist from Nigeria said to me, “I don’t want to be acquired!”

“Yes,” I replied chagrined, “Me neither.”


photo (Hush Hush) by Carl Clasio via Flickr Creative Commons

1 Comment

  1. Excellent piece. Words do matter — if nothing else, to our sub-conscious. It’s indeed difficult to completely retire this useful internal shorthand, but it’s worth trying in order to remind ourselves that every donor is a unique human being. Walking the talk begins with talking the talk. Thanks!

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