Photo by Rob Sarmiento on Unsplash
4 min Read
June 16, 2020

How to inclusively shape your organization’s voice

Defining your nonprofit’s tone and style helps you make communications decisions and express your brand consistently, intentionally, and uniquely. 

Whether you call it a personality, flavor, voice, or something entirely different, make inclusivity and equity central to your process of developing this tool. When you create and implement an inclusive and equitable process, you will be better equipped to generate an equitable and inclusive outcome–in this case, a personality that staff were centered in creating, feel comfortable embodying, are inspired to rally around, and trust as an authentic representation of your organization and the world you all are working toward. Here are a few conversation starters. 

Are we representing any stereotypes? Playing into them? Disrupting them?

Some words are either consciously or subconsciously gendered, meaning that when you hear the word, you’re jogged to associate it with a specific gender. For example, “plucky” might be a synonym for brave or spirited, but it’s often only used to describe a woman. Likewise, you rarely hear a man who’s passionate or energetic being described as “feisty.” Using words like “plucky” and “feisty” can be harmful and limiting because we’re used to seeing them in contexts suggesting women are less capable and taken less seriously than men. Look at your word choices to see where there might be gender bias or stereotypes creeping in, and where there might be opportunities to disrupt or take a stand against them.

Make space to address any racial and ethnic stereotyping in your personality. Big Duck once worked with a nonprofit who were initially very excited to include “spicy” as one of their personality words. It embodied a lot of what they were going for; they wanted to convey that they were energetic, forward, and confident. They could picture “spicy” being a useful tool in helping them develop the tone of their newsletter, choose the hero image for their website, write an amazing speech for their Executive Director to recite at the annual gala, and beyond. 

However, when this organization took a moment to pause, gather input from staff on their brand personality, and reflect, it surfaced that the word made some Latinx folks on staff feel uncomfortable. They’d had to contend with harmful ethnic stereotyping around “spiciness” in their personal lives, and raised it as an inappropriate choice for the organization to rally around. The nonprofit ended up choosing a different, more inclusive word to round out their personality.

Are we reinforcing standards and ideals set by a white-dominant culture?

Some personality traits are easier to live out if you’re white. For example, an organization had been utilizing “direct” as one of its personality words. Directness is a privilege that’s historically been reserved for white people across many contexts, including the workplace. Black women in particular are often characterized by white people as “angry” or “aggressive” for being direct. Some people of color on staff were uncomfortable with being explicitly tasked to embody this trait, unclear what it meant and to whom, and how it would actually be received. The organization took the time to think deeply about what they were ultimately trying to accomplish with the word direct. What was the common value underpinning it that they wanted to communicate? After participating in some explicit conversations, folks ultimately united around “honest” as a more accurate and inclusive personality trait. 

Should our personality reflect the spirit of those with whom we work most closely?

Some organizations use their brand personality to draw a closer connection with those folks who are most impacted or motivated by their mission. It can certainly be inspiring to staff and supporters to reflect the personality traits of the people who are touched by your work. Take an organization committed to wildlife conservation. Perhaps their most ardent supporters–those who donate, participate in programs, and spread awareness of the cause–share a set of personality traits. If these supporters were generally a “zealous,” “nurturing,” “nerdy” bunch, it might be smart for their brand to share some of those traits, too. Folks who are important to the wildlife organization will see themselves in the brand and feel connected to it.

There are also some cases where it’d be inauthentic and inappropriate to try and embody the people who are closest to your work. Imagine a nonprofit that delivers humanitarian aid to refugees. Should that organization try and emulate some of the admirable, inspiring traits they’d seen in those people seeking safety and freedom from persecution and oppression? In that case, it might be insensitive to try and claim those traits without also having those lived experiences. The organization might begin to tread into problematic generalizations. Is it really ever a good idea to reduce a marginalized group of people down to a handful of traits, even if they’re meant to be positive and complimentary? 

To generate an equitable and inclusive brand, you must make the space to have deeper conversations about the DEI implications of your word choices.

Hannah Thomas

Hannah Thomas is the Former Director of Learning and Innovation at Big Duck

More about Hannah