It’s a problem I have had to deal with most of my life.  Where my mouth gets in front of my brain.  The words come out and, BAM, there is no getting them back.  You know what I mean.  You have said something and then, once your brain catches up, you realize that you could have said it a different way or not said it at all.

And the learning is that words matter.  They really matter.

Which is why I was intrigued by the comment from our friend and fellow traveler, Rina Reynolds who wrote us:

  • “If I see one more headline that refers to a donor like a big fish “University lands largest gift ever”… I may scream!  Words matter… we shouldn’t talk in house or out in public about our donors as if they are ATM’s, kegs, fish, etc.  The language of gratitude and appreciation is valuable and critical to the professionalism of our work.”

All this type of language is what Jeff and I call “transactional language”.  It’s the use of words to describe a relationship, activity and actions that are transactional. It’s about describing how to GET THE MONEY.

We have all been guilty of using this language – of describing the donor relationship as a place where we get money.

Yes, we talk about being donor centered.  But donor-centered talk is often just a joke at many non-profits and for many organizations that serve a non-profit. We talk like we really value our donors and in the same breath refer to them as “big fish” or “whales.”

Here are some other words that are commonly used:

  • Prospect – This one is particularly offensive to Jeff and me, especially when it is used to describe a current donor who has not given this year. They’re a “prospect for giving” this year.  Why would you ever call a donor a prospect?  See the blogs we have written about this here and here.
  • Rich”– In addition to the word “rich”, we have heard words used to describe donors like: wealthy, affluent, well-to-do, loaded, flush, well-off, opulent, well-heeled, prosperous, filthy rich, rolling in money, rolling in it, etc. I think you know which of these would not be good to use.
  • Constituent – This sounds like a political affiliation.
  • Large giver – Here the focus is on the amount the donor gave or can give. I know when planning strategies and doing data selections that you have to describe/select donors by giving levels and capacity so the internal descriptors for those purposes are appropriate.
  • Planned giver, direct mail giver, midlevel giver – All of these are internal descriptors one would use in strategy, messaging and data selection activities.
  • Philanthropic investor or stakeholder – These seemingly harmless labels for donors have us focusing on the money. Not necessarily bad but something to watch.

Here’s the thing about all of these labels.  Some of them are clearly offensive, like “filthy rich” or “loaded”.  Other are fairly neutral, but focus on the money.

Jeff and I, in this blog, are not taking a firm position on the use of every word or label.  But what we’re saying is that each of us who works with donors should examine our hearts and values and think about HOW we THINK about donors.  Do you think of them primarily as a source of cash and funding?  Or do you think about them as partners in the great cause of your organization? There is a huge difference between these two positions.

The other thing we’re saying is to watch in your use of words is how you describe donors. I was particularly interested in what Dr. Hyder Zahed said about this as he wrote in the Huffington Post:

  • “Considering the ‘powerful force’ of the words we utter, we must discipline ourselves to speak in a way that conveys respect, gentleness and humility. One of the clearest signs of a moral life is right speech.
  • “Perfecting our speech is one of the keystones of mature people. Before speaking take a few moments to contemplate what you will say and how you will say it; while considering the impact they will have on the listener/s. Be kind to all and speak words that are beacons of inspiration, enthusiasm, and encouragement to all. Kind and sweet words are always music to the ears of the listeners.
  • “Many people are compelled to give voice to any passing feeling, thought or impression they have. They randomly dump the contents of their mind without regard to the significance of what they are saying. When we talk about trivial matters as in gossiping about others, our attention is wasted on trivialities.
  • “When we speak, we should speak with mindfulness, in a way to solidify peace and compassion in our characters. Not only do our words matter, but also the tone which we use has a huge impact. There are certain rules that should guide all our communications with others. Always speak the truth, avoid exaggerations, be consistent in what you are saying, don’t use double standards in addressing people, don’t use your words to manipulate others, and most importantly do not use words to insult or belittle anyone.”

The language and words we use become how we think and talk to and about our donors. Words have the ability to do something extraordinary when we take the donor to the need and express, verbally and through storytelling, the incredible impact they could make. Words can also be used to distance, separate, put down, and diminish.

Here are some other ways to watch how you think, talk, and feel about donors and fundraising:

  1. Assess the words you use internally, how do you refer to your donors?
  2. How is fundraising talked about? Is it “dirty” and something to be avoided or something to be celebrated?
  3. What are you celebrating? Is your messaging and communications about donors only about the big gifts that come in or do you also celebrate the smaller acts of sacrifice and generosity that the “little” donor made? We all, including the major fundraising, marketing and communication companies, have a tendency to talk incessantly about that “million-dollar gift” that just arrived. There is too much focus on the big dollar gifts and hardly anything about the impact, passion, and interest of smaller donor are making as they change the world.
  4. How are you using words to connect your donor more deeply to their passions and interests?
  5. How are you using words to ask meaningful questions that will help you develop a deeper relationship with donors?
  6. What ongoing organizational practices and rituals do you have that lift donors and fundraising to the level of true partnership in the mission of the organization?

Stop and look at the words you use. Then look at your heart and values. And if change is needed, please take steps to make those changes so that your donors are elevated to the respected and rightful place they should be in your own mind and in the culture of your organization.