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February 4, 2015

Words to Avoid—2015 Edition

With a new year comes renewed determination to communicate clearly and effectively with your donors, participants, and others. What better way to do this than with your word choices? Let’s avoid some of that overused jargon we so often see in the nonprofit world.

Here are a few terms we’ve seen over the past year that should be called out and questioned whenever possible:


I actually can’t believe this hasn’t made our list before (especially egregious in verb form). We hear it and (confession time!) use it all the time. And it’s not nearly as clear as we think it is. I just looked it up in a dictionary, and under the definition option for “improve or enhance” (the final in a long list of meanings, I might add), an example sentence says, “It makes more sense to be able to leverage what we do in a more effective way.” What?? So if you’re leveraging a relationship or a partnership for a particular reason, maybe you’re taking advantage of it instead. Spell out what you mean by leverage, so that people understand you.

Deep dive

This one is more dangerous in its various implications than in its actual use. If you’re doing a deep dive on something, it implies that you don’t usually go deep, which might undervalue your everyday work that might actually be incredibly valuable, even if you’re “in the shallows.” One other thing to keep in mind about a deep dive: you’re swimming pretty close to drowning, being underwater, lost at sea, swamped…


Please allow me to quote the late, great David Foster Wallace from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (a very fine tool): “This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. Rather, using utilize makes you seem like either a pompous twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart… ‘Formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.” David Foster Wallace puts it a bit harshly, perhaps, but he knows how to make a point. Side note: my new favorite phrase is “maximally considerate writing.”


This is another word the Ducks are guilty of using. More and more, when people want to touch base or connect during one of our processes, they suggest a touchpoint. How about we just have a call or a conversation or a meeting? And watch how you use touch base or connect. Is that really the clearest way to say it?

Full potential

Here’s a tricky one. We see this phrase a lot in the human services world, and especially once you get into the nuts and bolts of the work, it’s easy to see why. It’s fair to say that we all want children to reach their full potential. Full potential is an uncontroversial, blame-free, and general phrase that can apply to a lot of people and situations. Which is precisely its danger. It can be very vague. If you use this one—especially outside of human services—you’ll want to really explain it. And chances are pretty good that you’ve got some better options at your disposal.


As a general rule of thumb, the Ducks are anti-acronym. Yes, there are exceptions, and we’re not so inflexible that we can’t see them. But holy alphabet soup! The acronyms in the nonprofit world have hit some sort of all-time high. Names of organizations, programs, partnerships, departments, clients, and more, all boiled down to a few letters. Maybe it’s good shorthand if you’re speaking to someone within your organization.

As I write this, I’m within view of a whiteboard covered by our clients’ names as acronyms, and it’s useful. But if I go home and start praising the work of one of our nonprofit clients, and I’m referring to them by acronym, my wife will have no idea what organization I’m talking about. So please watch how you use acronyms, especially if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t work right next to you.


This is the only word that’s appeared on this list on multiple occasions, and I had thought I was finished with it. But in my stages of grief around the use of impact, I seem to be moving backwards. The use of impact has become so ubiquitous, so overwhelming, that I’m now moving from acceptance back to bargaining. Can we at least agree to stop using impact as a verb? Go ahead and have an impact on the people you serve. But let’s not impact those people. Please? Hello? Is this thing on?

But what about [insert word here]?

This is our sixth annual edition, and we’ve covered a lot of words since 2010. So…

The usual disclaimer:

There’s always a part of me that recoils at saying you can’t or shouldn’t use certain words. The rules of language are always changing and shifting. If they didn’t, maybe I’d have considered forsooth for this year’s edition! So rather than thinking of this list as a form of absolutism, use it more as a guide to ask yourself: Is there a way I can say this better? If you really can’t, by all means, use the words. Maybe even impact as a verb. Although I seriously doubt doing so would be your best effort.


Thanks to my colleagues, as ever, for their input. Also, I’m a big fan of the annual Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words (love this year’s entry on hack), now in its 40th year! The Use Sparingly Tumblr is also quite fun.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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