Be intentional with making your content inclusive. Here’s how.
Diversity and inclusion are a pair of words often said together that mean very different things—and we have to be mindful of that, especially as nonprofit communicators and changemakers.
Having diverse teams and communities is about people being different, whether in terms of abilities, ethnicity, gender expression, age, or a multitude of other characteristics. Inclusion is about making each person feel valued, respected, and like they belong. If your organization is not inclusive, you will never benefit from the positive effects of diversity.
Inclusion is less visible than exclusion. Building an environment that is inclusive and welcoming is as crucial as it is nuanced. One way to move toward inclusivity is by being more intentional with your language.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language embraces and respects people of different backgrounds. To be inclusive, you must start with an understanding of the history and meaning of words in different contexts. From their Latin roots to changing uses over centuries, words carry a lot of meaning and weight—even if we aren’t aware of how we carry that meaning forward.
How can your audience trust you if your language perpetuates offensive stigma and discrimination? And trust is already in short supply. If you think you’re in the clear because you don’t use any slurs or offensive language, you may be mistaken. Slurs are just the start.
Truly inclusive language considers words that are harmful in less obvious ways. For example, words like motherland and chairman are gendered and not inclusive based on gender. Or, referring to business meetings as powwows incorrectly uses the word and is offensive toward Native Americans.
But how do you learn about those nuances in language to be inclusive?
It takes time to learn about the history of words and keep up with changes in what’s preferred and acceptable. It also requires an attentive ear to conversations happening in different communities and the language changes they’re advocating for. One way to start making your content and language more inclusive is by checking out this new free Inclusivity Tool.
A tool that makes learning inclusive language accessible
The Inclusivity Tool is a free language checker created by Whole Whale, a digital marketing agency for social impact and nonprofit organizations. When Whole Whale dedicated more resources to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) internally, our attention turned to our content engine and whether the words we used reflected our values. But with hundreds of pages amassed over the years, there was a lot to review. We built a tool that could do what we couldn’t do manually, and we realized this could have an even bigger impact by being accessible to others.
Our free tool crawls any URL or text excerpt and flags possible non-inclusive language, as well as suggested language alternatives and links to learn more about the origins of those words. Our database currently contains approximately 1,000 potentially non-inclusive words. The first question that kept cropping up when using other tools out there, such as alex, was, “Why is this word considered non-inclusive?” With the Inclusivity Tool, you will get flags on a piece of your content and learn why a word has been flagged.
Context is important. What is acceptable to say in one context, may be unacceptable in another. For example, a flag for he/him pronouns on your bio page is a perfectly fine use case, if those are your pronouns. But if you’re using the so-called “generic he” across your website, then that is problematically gendered.
We hope that the Inclusivity Tool can be the start of conversations at your organization that will continue indefinitely. With language always evolving, the prospect of a “perfect score” is implausible. (This article returned 5 flags!) It will be up to you and your colleagues to make mindful decisions about what language you want to use and in what context, without being afraid of change when the larger conversation changes. You might also develop a language guide.
Inclusivity in language and beyond
Language is only one piece necessary to be inclusive, but it affects how people feel when interacting with your organization—and that’s important. Think about how you can develop your own inclusivity conscience because this will lead to better leadership, better results, and, ultimately, better relationships with the people you need to engage to achieve your mission.
Since language is always evolving, we want to stay current on the most inclusive forms of language too! If you catch any language that should be flagged as non-inclusive, suggest any changes to our recommendations, or have other ideas, drop your comment in the form on this page.