4 min Read
January 26, 2010

Words for Nonprofits to Avoid in 2010

Recently, Lake Superior State University published its 35th annual List of Banished Words for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. It included terms from 2009 such as friend (as a verb–thanks, Facebook); Tweet (good luck not using that one, nonprofiteers); and chillaxin’ (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a word to begin with, but yes, it’s tremendously annoying and disturbingly ubiquitous).

Well, that got us thinking… What words do we nonprofit people overuse or misuse, and what terms are generally useless or shouldn’t be used?

So without further ado, here’s a short list (in no particular order) along with the reason(s) for its inclusion here:

System – This is a word of many meanings and yet no real meaning. We’re guessing there’s probably a clearer, more specific term within your English arsenal of words. Perhaps you use system to mean your organization’s workflow, or perhaps you mean the government. Consider using workflow or government.

Infrastructure – Unless you’re speaking of roads, rail, bridges, tunnels, power lines, or other public works, this is a word worth avoiding. Using infrastructure to discuss the people of your organization, for example, takes the humanity out of your work.

Capacity – Who doesn’t say “capacity building”? Heck, at Big Duck, one of our areas of work is around capacity building. The real trouble with capacity is that people use it to mean many things, including capability or ability, both of which are clearer, less pretentious words. Watch how you use this one.

Impact – Politicians and marketing/communications professionals (you’re welcome!) may have fooled you into thinking that impact is a verb that means, “to have an effect.” For example, “Our work impacts the lives of teens.” To the chagrin of language purists (of which there is more than one here at Big Duck), impact will likely join the growing list of nouns that have been verbed into existence (such as contact, date, curb, or elbow). Until the standard style guides and dictionaries tell you it’s okay, we recommend that you avoid using impact as a verb and angering the language purists in your circle. They live among you. I’ll get some headshakes for using verb as a verb too. And by the way, impactful isn’t a real word.

Web site – Everyone has a website, and you should feel free to talk about yours. But when you write about your website, write about your website, not your Web site. Nothing will make you seem like a fuddy-duddy faster than capitalizing Web site and making it two words. It’s like you’re harkening back to the simpler days of the World Wide Web and its Information Superhighway. Strive toward having some tech cred. If you have a style guide that still says Web site, it’s probably time to update it.

Catalyst – A lot of nonprofits like to think of themselves as catalysts, never changing but affecting change in their arena. It’s a nice metaphor. I struggled with high school chemistry, and I had this really tough and serious teacher from Iran. I managed to really screw up on a couple of the tests early in the semester, from which my overall grade would never be able to recover. I had my sights set on some competitive colleges, so this was very worrisome for me. But I worked hard and showed improvement, eventually getting an A- on the final. On the final day, the teacher asked if I wanted to hear my grade. Knowing I’d mathematically earned a C, I despondently told him to go ahead. “Daniel…” he said (no one called me Daniel), “You work hard and show improvement. I think I give you A.” It was amazing. The only problem is that when I hear catalyst, my mind goes back to high school chemistry, not your organization. Am I alone on this?

There are more examples, I’m sure, and you probably have some of your own. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

Are we saying that you shouldn’t use any of these words? I’m a bit of a free speech purist, so I wouldn’t absolutely forbid you from saying or writing certain terms. By all means, use these words if you really want to. Just know that if you do we’re sitting here in our offices totally judging you. Totally.

But don’t worry: we’re judging ourselves too. Some of these terms get a lot of airplay at Big Duck. But hey, that just gives us something to strive toward throughout 2010.

We’re not the only ones taking a look at “bad words” in 2010. Our friends over at Douglas Gould have recently kicked off their Bad Words blog. Among other interesting posts, there’s a nice little screed about “Gun Show Loophole” that’s definitely worth reading. We look forward to checking out more good examples from Doug and his team.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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