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Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE

About Simone

Fundraising Vocabulary: Words I Hate

I remember Papa Georges saying, “Americans need to get out of their linguistic ghetto and realize that people live their lives in languages other than English.”

Linguists tell us that language is culture. We use the phrase “mother tongue.” Why? Because, historically, mothers have been the primary caregiver, the nurturer, the bastion of culture?

I don’t know all the history or the research or…

But I do know that vocabulary matters.

I do know that vocabulary can build understanding and community.

And I know that vocabulary can erect barriers and cause anger and pain.

What we say – the words we choose – matter. Of course, how we say whatever – voice tone, body language – all matter…even more than vocabulary.

So here’s a question: How do the words and phrases we use affect our body language? Just think about that.

Philanthropy or Fundraising?

Have you ever explored the meaning of language – the importance of vocabulary – with your staff colleagues and your board members? Have you ever asked donors what language moves them – or erects barriers?

What happens when you ask staff and board members to define philanthropy? Watch their body language. Listen to the tone of voice used.

What happens when you ask staff and board members to define fundraising? Listen to the tone of voice used. Watch their body language.

Which word generates hesitancy and maybe even suspicion? Which word produces smiles and gracious voice tones and positive words? Which word garners rather negative body language and less-than-positive words…and sometimes even distaste?

Pursuing Fundraising and Its Definitions

Have you heard others use these words and phrases? Have you ever used the words “low-hanging fruit” or “hit up those people for gifts”?

Or how about this: “Hey, you board members. Go ask your friends and colleagues for gifts. Use your relationship to produce money for this charity.”

Beware! Please, Please, Beware

Yes. I know. You’ll say that these are just quick internal phrases or words only used internally, of course. You’ll say that you’re really careful and internal vocabulary doesn’t go outside – because you’re so careful?


The risk is too great to keep saying that your internal vocabulary never goes outside. And anyway, do you really want your internal audiences – from staff to board members to other volunteers – to hear you speak so disrespectfully?

Such Commonly Used Vocabulary: The Annual Fund

Yes. I know. “Everyone” uses the phrase “annual fund.” (I even had letterhead that said, “Trinity Rep Annual Fund.” But that was thirty-two years ago and I’m smarter than that now.)

Oh please, please, please!!

What does that term mean? For example:

  • Give a gift annually. (Well that’s pretty dumb. Smart fundraising requests multiple gifts per year from donors who’ve already given. Different stories. Different themes. And many donors give more than one gift.
  • What kind of emotional content resides in that phrase “annual fund?” None!
  • And have you ever asked any fundraiser what kind of solicitation that is, that annual fund? Usually the response is direct mail. That’s soooo silly. The annual fund actually refers to all fundraising to support program/general operations for the year.

The annual fund includes foundation proposals…and corporate and individual gifts solicited by mail and personally face-to-face. The annual fund includes fundraising events that support annual operations. And what else?

Commonly Used Vocabulary: Major (Donor)…Major (Gift)…Major Gift (Officer)

I hate the term “major.” Because if there is a major donor or major gift or major gift officer … that immediately suggests that there are minor gifts and minor donors and minor gift officers.

And “major” and “minor” refer to gift size.

That is so very, very offensive.

Major gift donors Bill and Melinda – and your local Bill and Melinda – give major gifts. And somehow that makes them more special and more important. More special and important than Bob and Ben, married with three children, who’ve been giving $100 a year for a decade. Or Sarah and Sam, donors of $50 a year for twenty years.

What an insult. How demeaning.

And how very, very stupid.

Because if you treated all donors with care and respect and relationship building and and…. You could increase donor retention (loyalty is the holy grail of any business). Moreover, the largest gift most people ever give is a gift in their will. And the best prospects for gifts in wills? Loyal donors.

But more importantly, to me: Do you really want to replicate the travesty of our world where money counts more than just about anything? Do you really want to value money more than justice? Money more than equity?

I hoped the philanthropic sector would be better than that.

Other Icky Vocabulary Words

Nonprofit versus not-for-profit. Because yes, it’s okay to make a profit. Smart to produce excess income over expense, for risk and reinvestment opportunities.

But I’m not interested in fighting this one. It’s old news and so common and not worth fighting over.

And Then the Subterranean Argument about “Fundraising” or “Fund Development”

For years, I defined “fund development” as the broader term…the strategic processes as well as the techniques.” And I kind of thought of “fundraising” as just the techniques.

More recently, I’ve tired of the distinction. Fundraising… fund development… whatever. Essentially the same.

Not worth explaining or enforcing a distinction. Because we have so many other issues and challenges and opportunities and…

In our book Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships, Tom Ahern and I wrote this in Intermezzo #2: What do all the words mean?

Philanthropy means voluntary action for the common good. Fund development is the essential partner of philanthropy.”³ Fund development makes philanthropy possible by bringing together a particular cause, and donors and prospects who are willing to invest in the cause. The goal is to acquire donors of time and money who stay with the charity. This is done through the process of relationship building. With the donor at the center, fund development nurtures loyalty and lifetime value, thus facilitating philanthropy. You know if your relationship building works because your retention rates rise and the lifetime value of your donors and volunteers increases.

3. So said Henry A. Rosso, founding director of The Fund Raising School.

Vocabulary Matters

Yes, it does.

And we fundraisers can control the vocabulary. We workers in the nonprofit sector can pursue the right vocabulary to send the best messages for the greatest respect and care.

Please let’s do so. Who else, if not us?


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