Communicating Clearly: Why Your Nonprofit Should Use Plain Language

By on Wednesday, September 5, 2012

When I first started working at an international nonprofit organization as their communications director several years ago – I confronted a terrible problem familiar to many nonprofit professionals – the staff were using complicated graduate school level language when they wrote copy for the newsletter and the website.

That would have been fine if the only audience we cared about was people in graduate school – but the organization needed to communicate with grassroots volunteers operating nonprofits locally that were members of our national organization, people who spoke English as a second language, and many ordinary citizens who may or may not be impressed with our weighty vocabularies.

Some of the staff were in graduate school and perhaps it was hard to make the “brain shift” from the clear language needed at the office, to the word-loaded writing style rewarded in an academic setting. I secretly suspected that the staff were doing this – in part – because they felt the need to “prove” themselves a little bit to the older people at the grassroots base of the organization. To make matters even worse, they were prone to creating acronyms for new programs and referring to them constantly.

But the goal of writing for a nonprofit is to communicate, not to demonstrate how smart its staff members are or how glibly they can make up acronyms. If the staff could not figure out how to communicate clearly through their writing with the older population we served at the local level, the organization would have a tougher time functioning. And frankly, our member organizations wouldn’t even know what we were doing! I was spending more time editing than writing.

I ran readability tests on a sampling of newsletter copy to confirm my suspicions about the reading level issues. And then I held a training on how to write for the newsletter. The staff seemed less than thrilled about the idea of changing what they were doing. They liked writing that way – it showed they were smart! But over time, they learned how to use plain language. Both the newsletter copy and our website improved.

Plain language empowers people to understand – it does not dumb-down a mission or program. It’s not about “talking down” to people or making our writing boring and dull. It’s not about using lots of photos and never using words. Photos inter-play with writing- and can be used to illustrate concepts within our writing. Plain language is about making information accessible to everyone.Using plain language means that people can better understand what your nonprofit is doing.

Wordle by the Center for Plain Language

Here’s some additional resources to help your nonprofit:

Webinar Recording – A Chronicle of Philanthropy webinar on using plain language in the nonprofit sector

Article – Speak Plainly, Please – Five Tips for Keeping Audience-Alienating Jargon Out of Your Communications

Article – For Foundations, Clearer Writing Means Wiser Grant Making

Resource – Center for Plain Language

Resource – Garbl’s Plain English Writing Guide

Reading Level Tests – Readability Tests (offers several options)
SMOG Readability Formula
Web Readability Test Tool

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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