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4 min Read
December 2, 2019

Words matter: Creating a language guide to inform your communications.

Updated April 1, 2021

Is your nonprofit working on how it can be more inclusive? One of the many ways you can do that is through the messaging and content you produce. Words matter. 

Why this is important

When we talk about particular groups or people that we may not identify with, it is easy to use language that may exclude or alienate them. At your nonprofit, it is important to make your participants and clients feel welcome. One of the simplest ways to do this is in the words you say and use in your content, and how you address your community. Language guides can be a helpful tool to clarify your approach and train your team. Keep these guides alive and update them frequently, as cultural and societal norms are often changing.

If you don’t already have a language guide in place as part of your overarching brand or style guidelines, start by reading up. Language guides provide instruction for respect and dignity, while steering clear of prejudice and stereotypes. These guides can be specific to your nonprofit or not. It’s how we talk about these topics that really matter. 

Take a look at these resources to see if there are any new sections you might want to add to it. We’d love to see it and are happy to consider adding it to this list. You can send your language guide to us at [email protected].

A collection of language guides

Here are 12 guides you can review or use at your nonprofit to make your brand assets and day-to-day communications, and your staff, more inclusive.

1. Accessible Language: A Guide for Disability Etiquette

This guide from the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is crucial to use when writing or talking about people with disabilities. 

2. I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language 

The disability community varies in their preference for person-first versus identify-first language. This blog post is a good reminder that there are exceptions to every rule. As the author, Cara Liebowitz, says “To be sure, neither identity-first nor people-first language approaches should be applied broadly. There are some communities that strongly prefer people-first language…When in doubt, ask the person how they like to be described. Never make an assumption if you are in a position to ask. If you are referring to a broad community or to a person you can’t ask, I suggest you default to the language most commonly used by members of that community – not the language commonly used by parents or allies.”

3. LGBTQ-Inclusive Language Dos and Don’ts

The Safe Zone created this LGBTQ-inclusive chart that provides alternative words, reasons for doing so, and examples. It is simple and effective in cultivating inclusion.

4. Talking About Pronouns 

Read this comprehensive guide on pronouns, gender norms, and the history of gender from the Human Rights Campaign. Keep in mind that regardless of how a person may present themselves, you never truly know their preferred pronouns until they tell you. Always create a space at your nonprofit for a person to share this information with you, whether it’s on paper, via email, or in a group introduction.

5. Racial Equity Tools Glossary

Language can be used deliberately to engage and support community anti-racism coalitions and initiatives, or to inflame and divide them. Discussing definitions can engage and support coalitions.” Racial Equity Tools provides a racial equity glossary that can be helpful when discussing topics from accountability to whiteness within your organization. They also provide insight into the history of certain words. 

6. Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right

As many organizations work with people in poverty, make sure your staff knows what words to use and what not to use. From Journalist’s Resource, read up on how you may be talking about poverty disrespectfully. 

7. Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

The Marshall Project gathered responses from all different types of participants on how to refer to people who are/have been incarcerated. These responses pinpoint the key instances in which language can be a powerful tool to either lift people up or put them down. 

8. Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide

In this equity language guide, the Sierra Club notes some other fantastic guides including the National Association of Black Journalists style guide.

9. Reporting Guides

The Native American Journalists Association has created valuable reporting guides including a style guide to use when covering indigenous people.

10. The Social Justice Phrase Guide

The downloadable PDF provides a concise way to discuss issues of social justice from the Advancement Project and The Opportunity Agenda.

11. A Progressive’s Style Guide

SumOfUs provides this all-inclusive style guide with a noteworthy section on immigration/refugees. 

12. A Brilliant Way of Living Our Lives: How to Talk About Human Rights

Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote this guide based on more than 50 interviews with advocates across the human rights sector in the US, the UK, and Australia. They share messaging pitfalls and fixes, words that work, and how to address common attacks.

The results

How can the impact of our words advance social justice? The Drop the I-Word campaign from Race Forward exemplifies the change we can make when eliminating harmful words.

Creating and sharing these language guides with intent will create a basis for where your nonprofit needs to make changes and, in turn, will create a more inclusive space for your participants and clients. Use these guides not only in your organization, but outside too. The more people use their language wisely, the more we will foster greater understanding and an environment that respects and celebrates everyone.