How do you know your communications are bias-free? How do you know your fundraising appeals will not stigmatize the people you serve? How do you know if what you are saying to external audiences does not feed a preexisting bias (or worse, racism)?
The words we use to describe the people we serve and the way in which we serve them matter. We can describe someone as having reached rock bottom and desperate for help or as a person full of potential who your organization supports.
We recently held an internal workshop moderated by Racy Conversations CEO Karen Fleshman to discuss this issue. Here are some key takeaways:
- When drafting communications for any audience (donor or general), do not paint your organization as a “savior” to those you serve—it is patronizing, minimizes the potential of each person to change their circumstances, and can feed into stereotypes about people.
- Nonprofit marketing and development professionals often have a very different socioeconomic profile from the people they serve and frontline program staff. One of the most effective ways to make sure your language reflects the community you serve and does not objectify people is to ensure representatives from that group are engaged in the process of developing communications. For example, education nonprofits should engage students and mental health consumers should weigh in on the language being used to describe programs and services delivered by organizations that serve them.
- If you would not use a word or term in relation to an individual or group from the general population, do not use it to describe your clients (e.g. working with that “population” versus working with that “community”).
Portraying clients as empowered pays off. Readers, viewers, and listeners are inspired by stories of a person who overcomes great odds (that is why news outlets are so keen to tell those stories). And they will be inspired by your organization if they see you as having supported that individual!