These Overused Words Mean Nothing to Your Nonprofit Audience


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Healthcare nonprofits tend to use certain words in their marketing communications that they think are meaningful to audiences simply because they mean something to healthcare managers—words like innovative, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary, individualized.

But these words are meaningless to lay audiences. Instead of delivering a punch, they pack emptiness.

Whenever I see words like these, I cringe. Yet I see them used over and over again.

Take the word innovation, for example. According to a 2012 Wall Street Journal article— “You Call that Innovation?”—the word has become so overused that it has lost its meaning. Think about it: have you ever come across an organization that doesn’t consider itself innovative?

The WSJ article goes on to say:

“A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.”

So it’s not just nonprofits, but for-profit companies, that are the offenders. Most of the time, what organizations are describing as innovative is actually just new.

Even if your organization is truly doing something innovative, using that word to describe it won’t differentiate your organization from the competition, since everyone else is saying the same thing.

The same is true with cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, individualized, and other such buzzwords. I mean, isn’t all healthcare individualized?

Perhaps the bigger case against using these buzzwords is that, even if they weren’t overused, they don’t resonate with a lay audience.

I admit I have sometimes been guilty of using these words against my better judgement when writing for clients. Believe it or not, there is enormous pressure to use these types of buzzwords, because senior leaders are impressed by them.

Add “innovative” to a headline, and your story’s good as gold for some clients. I was once specifically told by an interviewee to make sure I use the words “innovative” and “cutting-edge” in the story,  because “those are good words to use.” Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to understand the target audience.

Non-profit communicators, if we all band together and agree to no longer use cliches like these, maybe our stories will be better, more meaningful, and engaging to the people we are trying to reach.

I, for one, vow to try. Are you with me?


The Secret to Effective Writing for Nonprofits

In many nonprofit organizations, the powers that be want to communicate things like how unique their services are, their accomplishments, or their mission. If only people would understand all of their important initiatives, they reason, people will pay attention and take action, whether that means sharing your content, donating, or using your services.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the most important tenet of marketing: People don’t care about you or your services; they care about themselves and their own wants and needs. This truth is difficult for senior leaders to accept. But unless they do, they may as well be talking to a brick wall.

Think about all the messages people are exposed to in a given day—emails, Facebook, Twitter, advertisements on TV, the radio, print, or on the web. With all of these messages competing for attention, the chances of your message being ignored is high.

Yet, some messages manage to break through. Why? Because they focus on providing content that audiences wants to read. Effective nonprofit writing—like any good content—either informs, entertains, inspires, or helps your target audience solve a problem.

The secret to effective writing for nonprofits is simple: write content your audience wants to read. Yet, so many organizations fail, because they haven’t focused on their audience. How do you do this?

First, understand who your audience is. What are they interested in? What are the problems they struggle with? What are they reading? What content are they sharing on social media? What are they commenting about? What do they want to know more about? Then, write content to engage them.

Stop talking about your organization and how unique your services are. Remember, your audience is not interested in your message if it is self-serving. If you try to beat people over the head with what *you* think is important, they will tune you out. And they will continue to ignore your messages in the future.

Your goal is to become a likable, trusted resource. When people receive a message from you, they will begin to pay attention to you if you have established a pattern of providing useful information or if your message is interesting or entertaining. If you consistently do this, you have an engaged audience. Then and only then, can you begin to achieve your marketing goals.

3 Common Misconceptions About Good Writing for Nonprofits

Lots of people think they know how to write well—the problem is that most of them are, shall we say, a bit misguided. The truth is, many of these people actually could be good writers if only they would forget the lessons they learned from their high school English teachers.

Here are three common writing misconceptions:

1. You shouldn’t start a sentence with and.

It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with conjunctions such as and, or, but, or so. In fact, starting a sentence this way can help your writing sound more conversational—always a good thing.

Warning: if you start a sentence with and, don’t be surprised if someone tries to correct you. Legions of people will swear on the life of their ninth grade English teacher that doing so is grammatically incorrect.

It’s not.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example from a recent New York Times article.


But nowadays we simply won’t invest, even when the need is obvious and the timing couldn’t be better. And don’t tell me that the problem is …”

So don’t let anyone try to tell you it’s incorrect. Because if the New York Times’ editors approved it, trust me, it’s okay for you to do it too.


2. You should always use active, not passive voice.

You were probably taught at one point to use active voice whenever possible, because it makes your writing stronger. It’s generally true that writing in the active voice makes for a stronger sentence and improves clarity in your writing.

But there are some situations in which you should use passive voice.

One example when you might use it is if you were trying to avoid blame, as in the infamous example:

Mistakes were made.

Hopefully, you will never have to write this for your nonprofit, but if your goal is to avoid identifying who is making said mistakes, you might find yourself using passive voice.

But that’s not the only time you might use passive voice. It can also be used when you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence instead of the actor, or if the actor is unknown or unimportant. For example:

The ALS ice bucket challenge caught the Internet by storm earlier this year. This social media phenomenon was considered one of the most successful social media fundraisers of 2014. 

The sentence above could have been rewritten as: Many people considered the ALS ice bucket challenge one of the most successful…

But the sentence is stronger by starting with “This social media phenomenon” because it is referring to a subject that was mentioned in the last sentence, rather than starting with a new subject: Many people.

There is actually a rule for this (one you should follow) and it’s called the known-new contract, also known as the given-new principle: Each new sentence starts off by referencing something that has already been stated as opposed to starting off with a brand new idea.

Following this rule will improve clarity in your writing. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want to learn more, here’s a good explanation.

3. You should always write in full sentences.

When it comes to writing copy for ads, emails, or direct mail, you can be even looser with the rules. You don’t even have to write in full sentences. Consider the following copy for an Allstate ad in Money magazine:

Because the same person you count on to protect everything in the here and now also has some pretty good ideas about the future.

Like setting a reasonable retirement goal. Helping to make your money work harder. And showing you all the ways life insurance can help provide for your family.

Technically, none of these are grammatically correct sentences. If you were writing an essay, you would combine the whole thing (plus the sentence that came before it) into one sentence with punctuation added. But since this is an ad, the rules go out the window.

That’s because long sentences are difficult to read. And if your ad (or email or letter or brochure, etc.) is difficult to read, your audience will turn the page, click away, or throw your message in the garbage.

If you look through magazines, email, direct mail, and even the books, you will see lots of examples of this, and it’s perfectly okay.


So the next time someone tries to school you on the rules of good writing, tell them you’ve got a thing or two to teach them instead.


3 Questions You Should Always Ask to Avoid a Communications Fail

What I’m about to tell you may seem obvious. As you read on, you may think, Of course we do this. We always do this. Everybody knows that. What is this, Communication for Dummies?

Okay, before you start to chuckle and guffaw and get all overconfident…you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen this mistake play out in the workplace.

There are three questions you should always ask before you write a single sentence for any type of communication initiative. If you don’t, your message will fail–every time.

1. What is the goal here?

This basic question is overlooked so often. Without a goal–no matter how talented a writer you are–you cannot effectively write anything.

If you understand the goal, you can create a strategy. The goal could be to increase donations, to increase the number of clients served, to spread awareness about your cause or services, and so on.

Creating an informational sheet of the services you offer? Not a goal.

2. Who is your audience?

You cannot effectively write a message without understanding who your audience is. Every message needs to be tailored to your target audience.

If they are donors, how old are they and what are their interests? What do they care about? How are they influenced? Once you understand them, you can write a message specifically for them.

This question ties in with the next question.

3. What’s in it for them?

Once you understand your audience’s wants and needs, you need to define what benefit you are offering them with your message. Every single communication must be written with this in mind.

Your nonprofit may want to tout its brand new one-of-a-kind program, but unless you find a way to turn that into a benefit for your target audience, they will not care.

Let that sink in for a moment. You may care, your boss probably cares, and your boss’ boss cares a whole lot. But your target audience won’t care–not unless you tell them why they should.

Whether your goal is to spread awareness about the work you do to prevent homelessness, treat patients, find homes for pets, or save the planet, you need to explain how your cause benefits the target audience of your message.

It’s so easy to fall back on the assumption that people will automatically care enough to take action. Unfortunately, they won’t.

Think I’m wrong? There are millions of people starving in third world countries right now, and few people are doing anything about it. Only when a catastrophe brings poverty front and center (think Haiti and Katrina) do people start to care. And when people care, they take action.

It’s not so much that people are selfish. People are just busy. They are wrapped up in their own lives, and there are a million different things clamoring for their attention every day. Unless they are directly affected or touched, they won’t pay attention.

Give them a reason to stop their daily routine. Tell them what’s in it for them, or their children, or their children’s children. Explain to them why they should care, and only then, will they take action.


The Oprah of Baltimore

Just before Thanksgiving I had a chance to interview Rev. Debra Hickman, co-founder of Sisters Together and Reaching, Inc. (STAR), a Baltimore non-profit dedicated to helping women with HIV. I nicknamed her the Oprah of Baltimore not only because she is helping those in need, but because she has lots of Oprah-esque catch-phrases, such as “I’m not perfect, I’m just striving to be,” and “Be forward focused, not past possessed.”

She teaches others to not say, “Woe is me,” but instead to look to the right or the left of you to see someone else who has a greater need.

A big proponent of holistic healing, she describes using spirituality to help women: “It’s about touching the core of another person with your own core – the real you.”

A startling statistic I found while doing background research for this interview: in 2008, there was one case of HIV for every 49 African American women in Baltimore City. One in 49!  Baltimore ranked tenth in estimated AIDS diagnosis rates of U.S. major metropolitan areas.*

So glad we have organizations like STAR combatting this issue.

To read more about Rev. Hickman (and STAR), read my profile of her here.

*According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.