Plain language for nonprofits
Nonprofits aren’t competing for people’s time and attention.
Yes, everyone is busy. But I believe in abundance.
My colleague, Hannah Thomas, has written about abundance in fundraising. It’s the radical belief that there is enough money to go around.
There’s enough time too. People have the capacity to notice a nonprofit’s work, learn more about it, and take action. They just need to be communicated with clearly.
We’ve all read mission statements that have left us scratching our heads or reports that brought about more questions than answers. They’re excessively wordy, complex, and unfocused. We forget them and move on.
Plain language is a powerful strategy that nonprofits can use to write in a more compelling and comprehensible way—and make their content more accessible overall.
What is plain language?
Plain language (also called plain writing or plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.
Everyone uses plain language (no matter what language they’re communicating in). It’s the language we use every day in conversation—telling a story to friends, messaging coworkers about a new project, and more.
Plain writing isn’t something people learn in school, especially in higher education. Many of us were taught long lists of vocabulary words. We were told to use these complex words in our writing to show that we understood what they mean.
Big words are smart. That’s the lesson we learned—and this lesson carried over to our jobs. Make no mistake, building a strong vocabulary is excellent. We should all continue reading and learning new words throughout our lives.
But the norm of writing in a complicated way no matter the context should change. Everyone benefits from plain language.
Why should nonprofits use plain language?
People notice when they encounter plain writing. They can absorb it, remember it, and summarize it to someone else in their own words (which makes them more likely to do all of these things).
Not only does plain language help nonprofits spread the word about their mission, it’s also more accessible and inclusive. For example, your organization’s website is your most public address. You’ve probably written your website with certain audiences in mind, but really, anyone on the internet can visit it.
According to the Literacy Project, about half of Americans read at an 8th-grade level or lower. From a lack of access to education to disorders like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, people have reading difficulties for lots of different reasons.
Using plain language on your nonprofit’s website will ensure all visitors understand your work and feel welcomed. Also, if you’re planning on translating your organization’s web content into other languages, writing in plain English (which shares many traits of writing for translation) will give you a stronger starting point. Plain language will help English-language learners understand your content as well.
Highly-educated audiences appreciate plain writing too. Even if you’re crafting a piece for a group of lawyers or academics, you have an opportunity to balance plain writing concepts with specialized language. For example, using active voice and shorter sentences in addition to some jargon will make your piece a quicker read that is easier to parse.
Plain language examples
Jewish Family Service LA is a large social services agency with locations across Los Angeles. They partnered with Big Duck in 2019 to refine their brand and develop a new messaging platform. Because their audience is made up of people of all ages and abilities, it was important for their messaging to be as clear and simple as possible.
Their website has great content designed and written in plain language. The type is easy to read, the sentences are short and informative, and the content is organized so that people can find what they’re looking for right away.
The Plain Language Action and Information Network is another excellent example of plain language in action. Here are some examples from their “Before and after” section:
Encouraging people to use less water
Before: This program promotes efficient water use in homes and businesses throughout the country by offering a simple way to make purchasing decisions that conserve water without sacrificing quality or product performance.
After: This program helps homeowners and businesses buy products that use less water without sacrificing quality or performance.
Plain writing helped make who this program is for clearer and why they should care. It shows (rather than tells) why the program is efficient.
Promoting car safety
Before: This is a multipurpose passenger vehicle which will handle and maneuver differently from an ordinary passenger car, in driving conditions which may occur on streets and highways and off road. As with other vehicles of this type, if you make sharp turns or abrupt maneuvers, the vehicle may roll over or may go out of control and crash. You should read driving guidelines and instructions in the Owner’s Manual, and WEAR YOUR SEAT BELTS AT ALL TIMES.
This example shows how plain writing and visuals can be combined to communicate a lot of important information quickly. It’s also a good reminder to wear your seatbelt.
- “Use” instead of “utilize”
- “Enough” instead of “a sufficient number of”
- “To” instead of “in order to”
- “Can” instead of “is able to”
- “Because” instead of “on the ground that”
- “Must” instead of “be responsible for”
Many common phrases (that don’t add any meaning) have simpler alternatives. Redundant words and modifiers also make writing harder to read or listen to.
How to write plainly
Contrary to popular belief, writing plainly does not mean “dumbing” content down or assuming readers want basic information. Using plain language to explain complex topics is one of the smartest efforts a nonprofit communicator can make. It shows deep respect and consideration for readers and listeners of all levels, and invites more people into the work.
Here are tips and resources to get started.
Plain language checklist
Use this quick checklist when writing or editing. If your piece expresses most of these traits, it should be easy for readers to understand:
Is my piece…
- Written and designed for the reader
- Organized in a logical order that’s easy to follow
- Divided by clear headings and paragraphs
- Written in short, simple sentences
- Written in the active voice
- Using direct and conversational words
- Free of jargon (or uses an appropriate amount)
- In simple typography
For more, you can consult the plain language guidelines and five steps to plain language.
Use your voice or someone else’s
Read your writing out loud and remove the extra words. If you’re able to find another person to read your writing and suggest edits, that’s even better.
Take your time
The famous saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” holds true for plain language. Plain writing is simple, but it’s not easy to do. Give yourself enough time to write and edit to ensure your plain language efforts are the best they can be.
Free editing and readability tools
The Hemingway App is a free editor that highlights parts of your text that could be simplified. It’s not perfect, but seeing the complexity can be useful.
This Automatic Readability Checker is less visual, but shows more readability scores. It can help you estimate the grade level of your writing and how hard it is to read. Unfortunately, both of these tools only work with English text.
You’ll know if you’ve successfully used plain language if your nonprofit’s audience is able to find what they need from your content (or learn something new) and knows what to do next with that information.