From nonsense to sensible messaging

Hannah Brazee Gregory
Hannah Brazee Gregory

Hannah Brazee Gregory

In Tina Fey’s new book, “Bossypants,” she writes about her first post-college job, which happened to have been working the front desk at a well-known nonprofit, the YMCA (which, of course, is now just “the Y” – a subject that warrants its own article).

An entire chapter of her book is dedicated to her experiences working at the YMCA, where she had the opportunity to observe the “office people” who worked upstairs.

She writes, “There was a program director who talked exclusively in nonsense business language: ‘We are attempting to pro-activate the community by utilizing a series of directives intended to maximate communicative agreeance.”

Tina got one thing right, it was definitely nonsense. But, it wasn’t “nonsense business language.” It was nonprofit-speak, and we can all relate to that.

When you spend your working days writing grants to fund programs that will solve the problems that keep you awake at night, there’s no wonder nonprofit folks start speaking this way.

But let’s take a lesson from Tina Fey. It is nonsense. Your nonprofit deserves better. It deserves clear, meaningful messages.

Here are a few tips to make sure you don’t end up in Tina’s next book:

Make sense to the outside world. This seems like common sense, but too often we get tunnel vision and forget that the person we are speaking to, or marketing to, was not in the last staff meeting. Assume they know nothing about your organization or the issues it works to resolve.

No alphabet soup. Acronyms are a nonprofit’s worst enemy when it comes to effective communications. We get in the habit because we email and speak this way internally. When you use an acronym that someone doesn’t understand, it makes them feel like an outsider and they cannot relate to your message or your organization.

Keep it simple. If you are in charge of marketing and communications, don’t speak like an executive director, program manager or grant writer. Language that was used in your last big grant application is not meant for the world at large. If you copy and paste it on your website and call it a day, you are cutting your organization off from a larger audience. And do not let your executive director dictate the language. You were hired for your expertise. Take a stand for clear messaging.

Tell stories. Rather than communicating about your nonprofit organization and the innovative ways it approaches its work, tell stories of positive outcomes. Don’t make it about you, make it about the people and communities that are positively impacted by your work. The general public doesn’t care about your methodology.

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