Nonprofit Words, Phrases That Lost Buzz

January 12, 2015       Rick Christ      

Baseball is known for its overused phrases and bad grammar as much as it is for hot dogs and beer. But, I still cringed when I heard a college coach introduce a 6-foot, 6-inch pitcher by saying: “This tall drink of water will give you 110%, 110% of the time.”

Yogi Berra, the famous Yankee catcher, was adorable with his awkward handling of his native English. The rest of us just sound like buffoons when we speak like this.

Fundraising has its own Yogi-isms, and few of us have his charm in delivering them. So, let’s retire some phrases that over-promise and under-deliver in terms of meaning and clarity.

Let’s start with “cloud-based software,” which used to be called “software as a service,” which used to be called “web-based software,” all of which are sold by “application service providers.” In my career we’ve gone from getting floppy disks with software upgrades, to dialing up the vendor’s computer and hoping they’d loaded their own upgrades, to accessing our files on the internet and hoping hackers weren’t also accessing them.

While we’re poking fun at software firms, let’s also call them out on “solutions” — many of which are nifty pieces of software eagerly searching for problems. A hammer is a “solution” — if your problem is a protruding nail.

And, what about “industry-leading?” I remember when Avis bragged about being #2. Not even in Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average) can all the “solutions” be “industry-leading.” Just for fun, I Googled (another soon to be boring phrase) “industry-leading, cloud-based solution” and found 697,000 results with that claim in 0.39 seconds. That’s a lot of bragging. (See the accompanying screen shot.)

The age of “emarketing,” with or without the hyphen, is over. We used to “e-market” (then “emarket”) with e-mail (which later became “email”) but email is now just one piece of a huge, integrated web of channels, including social media and mobile. The “e” has to go. Call it “digital marketing” if you have to describe the channels about which your boss is still uncomfortable. But really, if you’re still focusing on digital efforts separately from postal, your entire department needs to be retired, not just the words you’re still using.

“Viral” and “organic,” when combined with growth should be handcuffed together and expelled. If “organic” means growth that we didn’t work for, then “viral” means growth that we didn’t really deserve. Campaigns used to “bomb,” “break-even” or “succeed” and they still do, though fewer will succeed if we settle for “organic” and keep reaching for “viral.”

Besides, in this drug-resistant age, “viral” and “organic” make me want to wash my hands and wear a mask.

Anybody older than 40 knows that nice people have friends, and troublemakers have “cohorts.” Cohorts need to be indicted along with co-conspirators and members of a cabal.

“Deep-Dive” and “Granular” is the next pair to get the editorial heave-ho. As in, “let’s take a deep dive into the data” or “if we get more granular…” Let’s face it. The big-picture numbers are just the sum of the little-picture numbers. There’s no way to increase your fundraising results by focusing on the total revenue number. You have to focus on retention rate, giving frequency, and average gift. So start there, focus there, and don’t “drill down” (a “cohort” of “deep-dive”) any further. And for heaven’s sake, don’t “drill up.” Ever.

Saying your organization has “silos” is an excuse for failing to play nicely together with the other professionals who have their own goals and their own bosses. Of course they worry about their boss’s priorities more than they worry about yours. It’s your job to show them how they can meet their boss’s priorities by aligning with yours.

Of course, without silos, you’ll be tempted to “interface” and “network” more. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Instead, “meet” your colleagues (or cohorts, if you’re part of The Van Buren Boys) and “talk” with them.

A colleague contributed this phrase, uttered in her presence at a recent meeting: “We want to create data sets that are organic and breathable to set us up for success before the campaign.” I’d love to criticize this, but I have to understand first what the heck this person meant. The best I can come up with is that they want a bar of success that looks sufficiently “data-driven” but which they can lower if they need to declare victory when the campaign is over.

In “My Fair Lady” Henry Higgins laments, “There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven’t used it for years.”

Let us vow, in fundraising, in 2015, to speak from the heart and mind, not the sound-byte.

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Rick Christ is vice president for digital fundraising (not “e-fundraising) at Amergent in Peabody, Mass. His native language is New York, but he now lives in Virginia and has been working on an Appalachian twang for the past 18 years. He lives digitally @FundraisingRick