It’s never easy to admit you’re wrong, change long-held habits, and make yourself vulnerable. But changing the way we communicate in the not-for-profit sector often requires us to do just that.
We shouldn’t be afraid of it. After all, language evolves just as we do. In the late 1980s, my teenage English White mates and I used the n-word freely as we parroted NWA lyrics. Now, that memory is excruciating. And I wouldn’t do the same today.
It’s also unsettling to reflect on the language and images I’ve used for fundraising projects in the more recent past. They may have helped raise money, but they haven’t always represented people respectfully, showing their dignity and agency. I’m trying to change.
The language charity employees use matters. And, as in a lot of sectors over the last few years, there has been a progressive move towards making it more inclusive. Some people frame it as decolonisation. Some prefer talking about moving us away from a ‘them and us’ mentality.
But most people agree on the motives for change. We want to reduce inequalities of power, resources and income – which means NOT perpetuating those problems in the words we use to describe our work.
I love the radical solution in which Global North NGOs stop talking altogether and instead defer to people from affected communities to make their own cases for support (research suggests they do it just as well as we do, btw).
But as long as comms and fundraising teams, creative agencies and not-profit writers remain influential storytellers, we need to step up. If we care about reducing inequality and increasing global social justice, we can help make a difference with our choice of words.
Of course, this means making mistakes along the way. But if our intentions are good, we listen to voices from all sides, and we learn as we go, we can help create positive change.
The list below is by no means complete or exhaustive, and neither are the suggestions for alternatives. Some of the word preferences are contested too, so if you’re unsure, it’s a good idea to research discussions and debates around your subject area before making a choice.
But it does gather SOME common problematic words and phrases in one place and gives ideas about how we might change them for the better. I hope you find it useful.
Amplifying voices (implies doing so on your terms)
Alt – providing platforms for people to speak
BAME (often too general, flattening multiple identities)
Alt – [specific] community or person
Beneficiary (implies passive recipient)
Alt – participant; person we work with
Capacity building (implies communities are incapable of growing independently)
Alt – community-led growth projects
Committed suicide (implies a sin or crime)
Alt – died of suicide
Expertise (often generalised, implying Global North expertise)
Alt – sharing specific skills and knowledge
Developing country (implies current underdevelopment)
Alt – country we work in; unstable country
Empowering (bestowing power on a powerless person)
Alt – supporting; working with
In the field (colonial term, implies uncivilised areas)
Alt – in [specific region or place]
Alt – Working with; collaborating
Local (can imply powerful centre and weaker region)
Alt – [specific region or place]
Mission (missionary undertones, can imply White saviourism)
Alt – aim; objective; dream; hope
Person with a disability (suggests something’s wrong with the person)
Alt – disabled person (i.e., they’re disabled by society’s barriers)
Poor (fixed label)
Alt – people living in poverty
Serving/saving/giving (enforces division)
Alt – supporting; working with; standing with
Suffering (can be demeaning)
Alt – experiencing
Transforming lives (self-aggrandising and assumptive)
Alt – supporting people to change their lives
Vulnerable (fixed label)
Alt – in a vulnerable situation
If there are any words you’d like to see added, or if you’d like to chat about how to make the language your organisation uses more inclusive, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org