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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Does your stuff suffer from jargon breath?
Tom Ahern

February, 2009

"At risk"? "Accessible"? "Services"? I hear what you're saying. I just can't see what you're saying. And that's the problem.

What's wrong with jargon?

Just about everything -- once it leaves your office.

Jargon is for specialists only. It's convenient professional shorthand used by staff to speed meetings along. Every industry has its jargon: the sciences, social work, health care, education, even fundraising. (The peculiar term "planned giving" comes to mind. You think the average donor understands what that really means? But I digress.)

Outsiders -- and virtually all donors are outsiders -- do not get jargon, not the way insiders do. Sure, outsiders understand the words at a superficial level. But jargon does not, will not, cannot ring the bell that is the donor's heart. Jargon is always clinical, abstract language. And, worse, it tells no tales.

Now maybe you're thinking you're immune to jargon? Not so fast. Jargon is sneaky. Charities often use jargon and don't even know it. For example...

At risk ... accessible ... services.

These three terms seem innocent enough. And they're certainly common: even news reporters use them without a second thought.

But is the real meaning of words like these all that obvious to the layperson? Don't count on it, I'm begging you.

Of course, ask a donor what a term like "at risk" means; and you'll get some kind of definition. "'At risk'? Why, that's some poor child who's forced to grow up in a bad neighborhood. It's tough. But, you know, heck, my grandfather was an at-risk child once, when he came over from the old country. And he turned out just fine."

Charming. Just not what you meant.

When you, the expert, say "at-risk kid," you have in mind:

a specific child whose name you know, with a dozen things stacked against him and a less than 50% chance of ever graduating high school.

Which means, even with a good brain, he's doomed, statistically speaking. Without a diploma he'll work minimum-wage jobs the rest of his life, marry too young, die too young, and society will lose his full contribution.

And yet you know -- you have the proof -- that it doesn't have to be that way. You know that, in fact, this particular "at-risk" child can make it and become a successful adult -- if enough donors continue to support your wonderful, proven, amazing, life-transforming programs.

Just remember (have it tattooed on your wrist, if it helps): an outsider simply cannot accurately visualize what your jargon means. The references are missing. The daily exposure is missing. The context is absent. For insiders, jargon can conjure a rich world. For outsiders (i.e., donors), jargon just conjures confusion and blank mental screens.

It is the vivid mental picture of human suffering that stirs donor empathy. You can't create that kind of picture with mere jargon.

Takeaway: Jargon can be a serious obstacle to communicating effectively with your base of supporters. Outside the office, jargon is a dead language. We carelessly fling technical shorthand ("accessible," "services") at our donors and prospects. But generalists do not interpret these terms correctly and profoundly, the way specialists do. Terms like "at risk" fail to move people unless we bring those terms to life vividly through anecdotes, photos, and other real-life evidence.


Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church.

A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit




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