Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke
5 min
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Nonprofit Jargon: 22 Phrases We Love to Hate

Like a great song you’ve heard just one too many times, there are certain words and phrases we hear at the office that are like nails on a chalkboard. Sometimes, the word isn’t a great fit in the first place; other times, it’s just plain overused.

We took to Twitter to find out which phrases irk the nonprofit community. The following list is inspired by the comments we received and our own experience working with the nonprofit industry.

Are you guilty of any of the phrases below? Check out what each one means and learn simple, more specific alternatives you can use in your day-to-day.

Overused at the Office

1. Deep Dive

What it means: Professionals commonly use this as both a verb and a noun. It can mean to explore a topic in greater detail, or it can refer to an exploration of a topic.

Used in a sentence: “Fred and I did a deep dive on our donor retention numbers.”

Alternatives:

  • Let’s look into this
  • An in-depth discussion
  • Extensive research

2. Bandwidth

What it means: The available resources for a project.

Used in a sentence: “I’m not sure we have the bandwidth to take on a monthly newsletter.”

Alternatives:

  • Staff
  • Time
  • Technology

3. Soft Ask

What it means: To appeal for a donation or desired action in a way that is less direct or forward.

In a sentence: “Make sure subscriber welcome emails include a soft ask, Arthur.”

Alternatives:

  • Call to action
  • Ask

4. Donor Pipeline

What it means: Your community of prospective donors, all at different stages in the process to become a donor.

In a sentence: “George, we need to further cultivate website visitors in our donor pipeline.”

Alternatives:

  • Contact list
  • Potential supporters
  • Prospects

5. Innovation

What it means: New products, processes, or ways of thinking and/or execution.

In a sentence: “According to Charlie, innovation will help our nonprofit grow and succeed.”

Alternatives:

  • New ideas
  • Creative thinking
  • Incremental changes

6. Disruption

What it means: The act of uprooting current methods and replacing them with new ways of thinking or execution. While it tends to have a negative connotation, the tech space likens the concept to innovation and progress.

In a sentence: “Digital disruption has changed the fundraising game and brought it online.”

Alternatives:

  • Challenging the market
  • Making a left turn

7. Missed Opportunity

What it means: A project, strategy, or initiative of some kind that would have been fruitful to act on, often revealed in hindsight.

In a sentence: “Ron, I think the failure to live-tweet the seminar was a missed opportunity to reach audiences.”

Alternatives:

  • Something we should learn from
  • A key learning
  • An opportunity to try next time

8. Thought Leader

What it means: A person or organization that actively speaks on a certain topic and whose opinion has influence in that space.

In a sentence: “Molly Prewett is considered a thought leader in the human rights sector for her activism and work as a public figure.”

Alternatives:

  • Influencer
  • Reputable source
  • Pioneer

9. Move the Needle

What it means: To incrementally make progress toward a goal.

In a sentence: “Each of us has the ability to move the needle on saving endangered species.”

Alternatives:

  • Make progress
  • Make a difference

10. Silo

What it means: When groups or individuals work in isolation from others.

In a sentence: “If our departments didn’t work in silos, I would’ve known Audrey was emailing a program update to our donors the same day I sent them an appeal.”

Alternatives:

  • Separation
  • Isolation

11. Viral

What it means: For something to spread like a virus—quick and widespread.

In a sentence: “Bill wants our video to go viral and get millions of views.”

Alternatives:

  • Widespread
  • Quickly circulated
  • Heavily shared

12. Take This Offline

What it means: To address a topic at a later time, or to talk about something with a coworker in person. It could also mean to communicate through any means not using the internet.

In a sentence: “Good points about volunteer training, Mark, but let’s take this offline and finish up our plans for the new office space.”

Alternatives:

  • Talk about this later
  • Come back to this later

Or

  • Meet in person
  • Talk on the phone

13. Pick Your Brain

What it means: To chat with and get insight from someone more knowledgeable on a particular topic.

In a sentence: “Percy, I’d like to pick your brain on new ways we might segment our communications.”

Alternatives:

  • Get your thoughts on
  • Ask you a few questions
  • Hear more about

14. Granular

What it means: To speak about things at the highest level of detail.

In a sentence: “I’m not going to get granular on this, because I think we should move on and review our annual report.”

Alternatives:

  • Talk details
  • Nitty-gritty
  • Focus too much

15. Piggyback

What it means: To build off of another’s thought or idea with your own.

In a sentence: “To piggyback off of Rose’s comment about the CTR on the December event reminders, I think we should tweak the copy to sound more casual.”

Alternatives:

  • Push that idea further
  • Add a thought
  • Continue that idea
  • I agree, and think…

16. Circle Back

What it means: To return to a topic at a later time.

In a sentence: “I’ll circle back with you about the silent auction donations after my meeting.”

Alternatives:

  • Get back to you
  • Check in
  • Follow up
  • Talk to you again soon

Overused in External Communications

17. Impact

What it means: The positive results your organization has on the world.

In a sentence: “We’re thrilled to announce we’ve hired a new director to increase our impact transparency.”

Alternatives:

18. ‘Tis the Season

What it means: The time of year for year-end giving and holiday activities.

In a sentence: “‘Tis the season to pay it forward—donate to the Devon Bird Sanctuary!”

Alternatives:

  • It’s a great time
  • Now, more than ever

19. Donor

What it means: An individual or entity that contributes to a philanthropic cause.

In a sentence: “We’d like to thank our recurring donors for their continued support.” 

Alternatives:

  • Supporters
  • Friends
  • Community members

20. PoC

 

What it means: Person of Concern, or a refugee or displaced or stateless person.

In a sentence:We are currently working to get more information about evacuation routes for Persons of Concern.”

Alternatives:

  • Refugees
  • Displaced people
  • Affected individuals

21. Underserved

What it means: Disadvantaged populations. An example could be a population that does not have access to healthcare.

In a sentence: “The people of Little Whinging are, medically, the most underserved population in our country.”

Alternatives:

  • Ill-supported
  • In need of support
  • In need of access

22. Cutting Edge

What it means: The latest or greatest method, product, or idea.

In a sentence: “Using cutting edge technology, we inform nomadic farmers where the best fields for grazing are.”

Alternatives:

  • New
  • Leading
  • Advanced
  • Groundbreaking

 

Whenever possible, try to clarify and simplify the language you use in the office and with your larger community. If we take an extra moment to debunk our hot, go-to terms, we stand a better chance at communicating effectively.

Any favorites or any terms we missed? Share the phrases you love to hate in the comments below.


  • techne

    what about “not to be missed”?

    • Ellie

      Oh, that’s another great one! Thanks for reading!

  • Emily Boice

    what about “meaningful measures”?

    • Ellie

      Thanks for sharing, Emily! When do you tend to hear that?

  • Tom Dietzler

    “Unpack” – we’re always unpacking something here, as in deconstructing something that is written or a section of scripture (I work at a church)… also another one that I hate is “flushing out” which is incorrect use of “fleshing out” as in filling in details of an outline or creating more substance to the bare bones of an idea. Another problem might be me, as I sometimes listen too closely 🙂 thanks for some great examples here!

    • Ellie

      It’s definitely not you, Tom! Those are great examples! Thanks for sharing.

  • Keith Feher

    My all time least favorite is “Transparency”

    • Ellie

      That’s another word that’s definitely overused! Thanks for sharing, Keith!

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