Dear Nonprofiteer, Is there a Rosetta Stone for nonprofits?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I just joined a big social-service agency as a development associate, which means I’m charged with doing a lot of our development writing: grant proposals, the annual report, fundraising appeal letters to individuals. Naturally, this means I need to understand the work of our agency, which does everything from credit counseling to teaching English as a second language.

I’ve been meeting with the heads of the various programs, but so far the conversations have been like something in a foreign language: “Our FTEs are up but ESL enrollment is down” or “We’ve got to teach KSEs and demonstrate progress under Section 90.” How on earth am I supposed to understand that, let alone write about it?

Signed, New in Town

Dear New:

Let me suggest that you get hold of a new book called “Seeing Through A Donor’s Eyes,” by Tom Ahern. A big fan of plain English, Ahern describes the use of jargon as one of four “veils” with which nonprofits conceal how important and exciting they really are. Let him tell it: he pulls no punches.

Allowing jargon into your case is a faux pas. It’s a mildly disgusting habit, something you don’t do in front of guests, like flossing at the dinner table.

Here’s a United Way of my acquaintance explaining itself: “Our awareness and efforts now focus on community impact goals, and how we feed into that. In other words,” [my emphasis added], “our work has become driven more by mission than by function. We need the multi-pronged approach to move public will, and there has been an exponential benefit of working more closely and in concert.”

In other words? This writer needs help. Real “other words” would have said something obvious like, “We’ve changed the way we do things. We hope to get better results this way. Our first attempt was a big success.”

Read the book, and then (0r even meanwhile) walk into your next meeting with the program people and say, “I can’t tell the world how important your work is if I don’t understand it; and I can’t understand it if you use buzz-words or acronyms or terms of art.  So please tell me what you do in plain English.”  Then feel free to stop them every sentence or so and say, “What does that mean?”  Often, program people simply don’t remember that they’re speaking in jargon; reminding them is your job.

The key to success here is that you not mind looking like an idiot.  (No one with any brains will think ill of you for asking to be educated about what you don’t know; but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter people who give you attitude when you ask them questions.) Remember: it doesn’t matter how YOU look; it matters how the agency looks.


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