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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, adding a few key discussion points around inclusivity and equity to the process of developing this tool is important. It’ll lead to a personality that staff who value equity and inclusion are excited to rally around, feel comfortable embodying, and trust as a 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. Some people of color on staff were uncomfortable with being explicitly tasked to embody it. 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? Staff united around the foundational idea of honesty and were able to bring the trait to life without being caused discomfort. 

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? 

By making the space to have more deep conversations about the DEI implications of your brand’s tone and style, you reap several benefits, including 1) the valuable opportunity to engage with and learn from other members of your team in a meaningful way, 2) staff building equity in the brand because they have been represented in both the process and outcome, and 3) your organization’s voice ultimately shining, reflecting intention and cultural competence outward to your audiences and the world at large.