Jargon & Gargoyles: How to Not Bore Your Donors to Death

Do you use non profit jargon when talking to your donors?

I recently asked the new executive director of a small international social justice organization why he wanted to raise money.

“So we can hire more staff,” he said.

“Good,” I responded.  “Why?”

“So they can help raise money,” he said.  He quickly recognized the circular logic.  So he tried again.  “To do advocacy, writing, networking, and organizing,” he said.

A wise friend of mine once said if you ask “Why?” five times, you will get to the real heart of the matter.  So I probed.

“In Haiti, for instance,” he said, “our reforestation program is very popular.  We have many schools involved in replanting areas that have been deforested.  But the students have to walk for hours to get to the nursery that grows the seedlings.  If we have more resources, those kids will be able to have nurseries closer to their schools, and they won’t have to walk so far.”

Paul Jolly

Paul Jolly

All across the country I could hear the sound of wallets opening as he said that.  We all know that good writing and speaking is free of jargon.  But jargon is insidious.  It’s not just obscure acronyms and five-syllable words.  It’s language that is devoid of human warmth.  Very helpful for manipulating concepts in strategic plans and budgets.  But speaking jargon to donors is a surefire killjoy.  Think about it.  The donor wants to know that his or her contribution is making the world a better place.  What happens to that enthusiasm if you talk about personnel issues, finances, board/staff conflicts, or other management tedium?  If the donor asks questions about people or finances, of course that is a promising sign of engagement.  But the relationship is not sparked anyone wanting to balance your budget or pay your salaries.  So please don’t start with the mundane.

It is natural that the internal details occupy our heads.  Those are the problems we are solving every day.  So it takes a deliberate re-orientation to talk on the level that makes sense to people whose relationship is mostly inspirational. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Remember what you first learned about the organization and why it attracted you.  Connect with why you first flushed with pride about working there.
  • Listen to donors talk about why they are committed.
  • Follow program staff around for half a day.
  • Imagine you have been invited to do a Career Day presentation at your daughter’s fifth grade class, and you want her classmates to tell her how cool her mom or dad is afterwards.

Fact of the day: jargon comes from the French word translated as gargoyle.  Gargoyles scare away demons.  Jargon scares away donors.  Don’t let it happen to you.

The preceding is a guest post by our regular contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth.  He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union.  In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid.  The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

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