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  • Debra A. Gill

Taboo Words

Put a coin in the jar!


Over the years, I’ve had many conversations about philanthropy that inevitably include some language that falls outside the boundaries of what most professionals consider appropriate. I’m not talking about the type of inappropriate language that immediately comes to mind, but rather language that puts philanthropy in an unfavorable perspective.

For instance, should. “Donor so-and-so should give to this cause.” Why should they, I ask? Philanthropy isn’t an obligation; it is a privilege. As fundraising professionals, it is incumbent upon us to make sure we maintain the highest level of integrity with our language so that donors are honored for the intentions behind their support as they well deserve to be.

“I’ll go twist their arm” is another phrase that needs to be eliminated. I don’t know about you, but my brothers used to twist my arms and I didn’t enjoy it very much. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who enjoyed having their arms twisted. So why would we assign such a negative description to something that we all want to see as a positive and pleasing experience? I know this is just a figure of speech, but it has such negative connotations. Inherently, there must be an assumption that the donor won’t want to give and therefore we will have to deliver a level of persuasion above and beyond the normal conversation. The truth is, if we have done our job and developed a proper relationship with the donors, engaging the right solicitation team for the right approach at the right time, no one should need to have their arms twisted to make a gift, figuratively speaking.

“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” The inevitable quid pro quo whereby our volunteers are somewhat reluctant to approach their acquaintances as they expect they will in turn be asked to support their charities of choice in exchange. Now I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen but when it does, it pulls us away from connecting donors to our missions in thoughtful ways. And inevitably it reduces the impact each donor has because the size of these “go away” gifts are rarely commensurate with donor capacity. Ideally, each of us will be comfortable politely declining to support missions that don’t resonate and celebrate when we inspire like-minded contributors to join us in supporting our priority organizations.

“I need you to do me a favor, help me out and cut a check.” While it is certainly wonderful when our staff and volunteers pull in favors for our not-for-profit organizations, this mentality diminishes the quality of the conversation and diverts us from building long-term trusting relationships. At the end of the day, our job is to engage supporters in such a way that they enthusiastically invest in our organizations. This work isn’t about trading favors, it is about making a meaningful impact.

“I’ll hit them up next week.” Another reference of an unpleasant experience that we probably don’t want to associate with the opportunity to support one’s charity of choice. Other words to avoid come to mind such as beg, shame, and the like. You are probably building a list of your own right now.

We had a swear jar in our home when we raised our kids. Each of us had to put a quarter in the jar when our language was outside the acceptable boundaries. I put this same idea to use with a board of directors once. If they used “taboo words” during our meetings, they were invited to contribute to the jar. I’m not sure we did a very good job of enforcing this practice, but they did start to understand the effect their language had on our work together. Using positive words and phrases lifted everyone’s perspectives and resulted in creative solutions, teamwork, and personal pride in the achievements.

Concentrating on constructive interactions is essential to building and strengthening our cultures of philanthropy. This work is worthy. This work is essential. Our language must embody the outcomes we are seeking.


Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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