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Speak in a Language They Can Understand

Back in the late 1990’s, I worked for a major movie rental company based in Oregon.  Many of the people I worked with were moviephiles, and they would recommend movies that they thought I would like.  Some of the more pretentious coworkers would suggest a foreign title, and on occasion, I would check out some of those movies.

I recall there was a time that I took a video home to watch, and unlike most the foreign films the company rented, this one did not come with subtitles.  I put the tape in the VHS player and turned it on.  I watched it for about half an hour, then I turned it off.  I didn’t speak French, and since it was a drama and not some action film, I could not understand the dialogue and could not follow what was going on.  It was a waste of my time.

Around that same time I served on the Board of Directors for a social service agency.  I was the Chairman of the Planning and Programming Committee, and once a month my committee would meet with the Director of one of the programs the agency offered to its clients.  Sometimes the information provided by the Program Director was interesting and it helped us know that the program was doing what it was meant to do and using its resources wisely, and then we would report to the rest of the Board what they were doing and suggested changes in the level of support when necessary.

At other times, Program Directors would meet with the committee, and it was not the same result.  They would use nonprofit speak, throwing around jargon and acronyms that we lay people didn’t understand.  We were people who worked in fields other than the social services and weren’t acquainted with nonprofit speak.  Heads would nod like we understood, but eyes would glaze over, and we had a hard time following what they were saying.  It was like watching a foreign film without the subtitles.  I think we were a little embarrassed that we didn’t know what the Director was talking about, but when it came to report, we didn’t have much good to say about the meeting.

It is so important when you are talking to a supporter or potential donor that you speak in their language.  Don’t use technical terms, jargon, or acronyms.  Don’t use terms like “underserved cohorts, RFPs, ROI, silo-ing, or other commonly used nonprofit speak.  Donors and supporters won’t have the luxury of subtitles or a glossary of terms to turn to.  Instead, their eyes will glaze over and their heads will nod, but they most likely won’t pull out a check book.  They will thank you for your time, and say they will get back to you, but they won’t call back.  If they don’t understand what you are saying when you are making your case, you have blown your chance at building the relationship.

Last night, while talking to a woman about fundraising for her organization at the CNRG Networking Night, the topic of using jargon and acronyms came up.  Since she works for a very small office, I suggested “For the optimization of her ROI, she should emphasize the valuation of the philanthropic benefit for the underserved stakeholders to her benefactors,” and we both started laughing.

I think I will stick with plain and simple English