The rampant, widespread use of boring, convoluted language is costing the social sector a lot of money. Here’s why: Nonprofits are spending more to get people involved in their cause simply because no one can understand what they’re saying. The language they use to convey who they are, what they stand for, and what they do confuses donors, volunteers, staff, and board. And when people are confused, they don’t fully engage.

Luckily, this is a fixable problem, and there are three things organizations can do to solve it.

1. Create a mission statement that articulates the root problem you address.

A mission statement is a nonprofit’s lead domino: It sets everything else in motion. Organizations feature them prominently on their websites and in brochures. It has a starring role in grant proposals and at events. Board and staff proudly recite it when someone asks what the organization does.

There’s nothing wrong with an organization featuring its mission statement. The problem is featuring a mission statement that no one can understand. Unfortunately, incomprehensibility is too often the norm.

One of the best tools for making a mission statement easier to understand is the Flesch reading-ease test, which tells you how easy, or hard, something is to understand—roughly from 0-100, where higher numbers indicating greater readability.

Take an example. In their article “Mission Matters Most,” Kim Jonker and William F. Meehan discuss the importance of a hyper-focused mission statement, and explain how the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) went from having a mission statement that was half a page long to the following pared-down version:

AIL provides education, training, and health services to vulnerable Afghan women and children in order to foster self-reliance, critical thinking skills, and community participation throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While this version is certainly shorter than the original, it gets a zero for reading ease according to the Flesch test. This alternative, even more succinct, gets a score of 42.5:

AIL improves the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

AIL leaders (and Jonker and Meehan) might argue that by leaving off the last part of the original mission statement, the statement doesn’t fully convey the organization’s mission. That may be true. But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more.

2. Expand your linguistic repertoire.

Research on novelty from Stanford Professor Russell Poldrack and others infers that organizations can get more people to pay attention by using words that others aren’t using.

Yet after analyzing the words on 2,503 nonprofit websites (which offer excellent insight into broader language usage), I learned that nonprofits are availing themselves of a mere five percent of the more than one million words in the English language. That leaves 95 percent of all English words—words capable of piquing and keeping people’s interest—unused.

One resource for finding new and interesting words is a free tool I designed to help nonprofits expand their vocabularies: The Wordifier. To see how it works, let’s revisit the AIL example, noting the following bolded words:

AIL improves the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

By putting each word into The Wordifier, we learn that the bolded words are all in the top one percent of words nonprofits use on their websites. To stand out, AIL might consider finding some alternatives to those words, starting with the verbs, which brings me to the next point...

3. Use better verbs.

Verbs are action words. They are especially important in nonprofit messaging because they represent the change an organization is making in the world. Unfortunately, nonprofits often use terribly boring verbs to describe their amazing work!

Based on our research, top verbs nonprofits use are: support, make, and provide.

Support works as both a noun (“Your support is invaluable”) and a verb (“Please support us”), which bumps up its frequency. Make shows up in two of the most common phrases nonprofits use: “Make a donation” and “make a difference.” So it’s not surprising that the term appears on approximately 75 percent of all nonprofit websites.

That brings us to provide. Putting this verb front and center pretty much assures that no one will notice the change you are creating—68 percent of nonprofit websites use it, including AIL.

In the rework above, I chose improve as the verb—which only 33 percent of nonprofit websites use. But a more-unique option might be:

AIL betters the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

Betters (as a verb) appears on only 0.1 percent of nonprofit websites, making it a “better” choice for getting people’s attention.

Ideally, all nonprofits would have a mission statement that is concise, compelling, and readily repeatable—a statement that could proudly serve as the lead domino for all messaging. But with or without a mission statement overhaul, nonprofits would benefit from aiming for high reading-ease scores in all their communications, from availing themselves of the 95 percent of words other nonprofits aren’t using, and from finding  more interesting verbs to explain what they do and why they do it.

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