Dump the Cliches: Words and Phrases Fundraisers Love to Hate!

Wow, I hit a nerve last week when I talked about my Least Favorite fundraising words.

These words are lame!

For the record, my own personal award for most disliked word goes to “underserved.” I think that word is a very lame effort to describe the wonderful people we try to help.

My next least favorite words are “programs” and “services.”

Again – I just can’t raise a whole lot of money with these words, because they have no power, no punch.

I asked my readers last week to add their own least favorite words in the comments boxes.

And boy did I get an earful!

Isn’t it just so much fun to vent! We are usually much too busy. But in the summertime when things finally slow down a bit, we have the time to get punchy and talk bad.

Drumroll . . . . please:

Here are YOUR own nominations for least favorite fundraising words:

  • Leverage
  • Engage
  • Financial resources
  • Capacity
  • Sustainability
  • Empower
  • Ministry
  • Facilitate
  • Outreach
  • Benefit
  • Efforts
  • Accomplishments

    Funny and ironic wording grabs attention faster than boring words.

  • Outcomes
  • Impoverished
  • Dignity

Here are your most disliked cliches:

  • doing anything one anything at a time — changing the world one family at a time…saving the planet one tree at a time…..saving the future one child at a time…..rebuilding communities one house at time…
  • “On behalf of….”    – Ugh!
  • I am writing to tell you blah blah blah
  • “The purpose of this letter” — is equally bad.
  • “Now more than ever”
  • “Maximize” and “capacity building”
  • “Impactful” and “Make a difference!”

Wouldn’t it be nice to never, ever see these words and phrases again in the nonprofit world?

BOTTOM LINE: Be smart!

It’s way too easy to lapse into boring, hackneyed words and phrases.

But remember, when you water down your fundraising appeal with this sort of stuff, you are sending out pablum.

Don’t expect to raise a lot of money with these words and phrases.

What else have we missed?

Do you have another “Least Favorite” to share?

  • Lallen

    I would love to see what you or your readers would replace these words with. How about posting a instead of …. use this____. I am guilty of using many of these words and welcome suggestions for better words! Thanks for the post.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Linda, great idea! let’s ask everyone who comments or reads to offer some substitute words and phrases.  Would be a very useful exercise.

  • Cynthia


  • Margaret in Maine

    Alright — time to get out the thesaurus and find other words that indicate urgency of our mission.  But, just to play the devil’s advocate, I wonder if, although they may seem old and hackneyed to those of us “in the industry,” are these language choices necessarily dull to our supporters? 

    Hey Gail, let’s get everyone thinking about new language to take the place of phrases like “kids get empowered” or “your dollars make an impact.”   With the 3 seconds we fundraisers have to catch someone’s attention in print or online, language choice is critical :)

  • Anonymous

    Great addition to the ‘most disliked list!”

  • Rwegsman

    You mean that after all the time I spent learning these words — I have to unlearn them? :)

  • Paul

    In your article, “Here’s a Real, Live, “Donor-Centered” Appeal Letter”, you close your recommended letter with the statement, “Your donation will make a world of difference”. So would you argue that “make a world of difference” is substantively different than “make a difference”? 

    Your article read, “Knock this letter off. Adapt this and USE IT!” 

    I did. I sent it, adapted, but with your statement to over 70 of the largest donors in the Carolinas. The response: Two polite declines.

    I’m just sayin’.

  • Tracie

    I understand what you’re saying, as I believe we all feel the same way- even as we are writing these over-used words, but for the life of me (or our staff), we can’t seem to come up with something better. How else do you say programs and services (or self-sufficiency)? We often try to be specific and use “such as,” but coming from an organization that works with the homeless population, one of the big messages we are trying to convey is that we are not just here for a meal and shelter – that we provide programs and services that help our residents leave more prepared for life outside our campus. I would love to see suggestions on other phrases and words to use in lieu of the ones on the list. 


  • Thekirschmanns

    Hi Gail. I too would be interested in hearing what your favorite words are folks should be using…fire away….!

  • Lynn

     Tracie would “we provide opportunities that help….” work? Just a thought.

  • Urbanwoman

    Yes, I think a positive article on words that work (replacing the words you’ve listed) would be much more helpful to us. 

  • Stephanie

    Programs is the hardest word for me to work around.  Would love any other suggestions.

  • Paul S.

    I agree.  It is easy to state the negative.  What is better?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Paul, I think that needs to be the subject of another post! It’s fun and easy to poke fun at our foibles, but harder to come up with a decent alternative. I’ll get to work.

  • Anonymous

    Well, maybe use them judiciously! : )

  • Anonymous

    I like that phrase instead of “programs” or “services!”

  • Anonymous

    Instead of “programs” and “services” we can say: 
    We help people do this and that. 
    We make it possible for them to xxx; 
    We create new opportunities for them; 
    We support them to accomplish xxxx;
    We change the world by doing this and that.
    We spark changes here and there. 
    We open up new horizons . . . 
    But most of all: We help people do these things. 

    Much more interesting than taking about getting a program funded or providing a “service.” And I think it dignifies the people we serve even more. 

  • Anonymous

    Stephanie, take a look at my response to Tracie below.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Paul, you certainly got me on that one!  I did use “makes a world of difference” in that suggested appeal letter because I thought it was a nice closing to a heart-felt, plain-spoken, personal letter. I thought it fit nicely right there but perhaps it, too, may be a bit stale.

    Also, re your disappointing return on that letter – many things will impact the performance of a stand alone appeal:  the envelope, paper, stamp, who signs the letter, the reply device, the lack of a web address, the font, the margins, the paragraphing and white space, the salutation, the PS or lack thereof, the followup or warmup to the letter. Most importantly, the factor that most determines an appeal’s success is the relationship you have with your donors before you solicit them. 

    Thanks for pointing this out!

  • Kent

    Least favorite: Anything that says or implies “you owe us” or “it is your responsibility…”

  • Jay Werth

    Words that usually don’t work for me are  the “izing” of verbs and adjectives.  Customize… usually custom will work- a custom approach versus a customized approach. Incent vs incentivize.

  • Terri

    would love to have a replacement for “community”–more than a neighborhood, less than a city–a group of people with shared interests (sounds cumbersome)?

  • Janice Brenner

    This is so interesting but I agree with Lallen, alternatives would be really helpful

  • Chris Cameron

    Words and phrases change regularly – language is flexible.  Our new list of …this for that… will just give us a new list of words to hate next year.

  • Mary Cahalane

    I think we depend on these words (and I’ve been guilty, too) because they make things easier for us – like shortcuts. Of course, that’s completely beside the point – whatever we’re writing isn’t about us, it’s about people we’re helping, it’s about people we’re asking to help.

    The key is usually to try to say it as you would to a friend – in spoken, colloquial language. 

    And sometimes… well, sometimes there might not be a better word. (I’m thinking “community” as mentioned below. I’d love another word, too, but haven’t found one that says all those different things at once in a geographic, emotional, civic sense.)

  • abby

    Good suggestions. I’d change one thing: substitute “we” with “you”. You help people do this and that. You make it possible for them to…Construct your communications with the following in mind: People don’t give TO a nonprofit, they give THROUGH it.
    The nonprofit is simply the facilitator and thus should almost be invisible. It is the donors that make all those things possible. “Because of your gift [you], Johnny has learned to use a pen and for the first time wrote “i love you” in his mom’s birthday card.”

  • gailperry

    Great suggestion Abby!

  • FOCUSedWriter

    I completely agree, a positive article on words that work would be appreciated. I am new to writing for a non-profit and although these words and phrases bore me to tears I can’t think of many alternatives. I’d love to get my audience excited about our cause rather than trying to guilt them into giving time and or money.

  • Julie

    Please add robust and best practices to the list!

  • gailperry

    Julie, whoops! I am probably guilty of using the words “best practices” – good catch! Gail

  • Charlie Hulme

    ‘Amazing’ the word’s lost all impact.

  • gailperry

    Whoops! I use that word a lot! maybe I better rethink. How about awesome?
    That word belongs to a certain age group younger than me!

  • Charlie Hulme

    : ) the words ok, it’s the context. Too many appeals refer to a donors ‘amazing decision’, or talk of the ‘amazing’ work they do etc. If something actually amazing it will highlight itself, if it isn’t then saying it is just sounds insincere