5 Words or Phrases that Can Cause Donors to Cringe

Words have the power to inspire. They also have the power to alienate. Words can touch us or they can fall flat.

In my previous post, I shared seven words that, when used together, can earn you the respect, trust, and appreciation of prospects and donors.

Word by Whatknot via FlickrMary Cahalane, of the Hands-on Fundraising blog, looked at words from a different perspective in her excellent post “7 Words and Phrases that Should Die.” 

Inspired by Mary, I now want to share my list of planned-giving and major-giving related words and phrases that, at times, make me cringe:

Planned Giving. I know, I just used the term “planned giving,” and now I’m telling you it makes me cringe. Let me explain. The term is jargon. As such, I think it’s fine to use with other nonprofit professionals in the office. It nicely encompasses all of the various ways of planning a gift. Unfortunately, most donors have either no idea what the term means or only a vague, partial notion.

When speaking with a prospect, avoid talking about “planned giving.” Instead, talk with your prospects about their “legacy” and the specific gift structure(s) you want to suggest. For example, talk about a gift in a will or a Charitable Gift Annuity rather than using the confusing and, for the context, overly broad term “planned giving.” If you need a generic term to use with prospects, I prefer “legacy giving,” while I acknowledge that that phrase is not completely without its own problems.

Bequest. When you read the previous paragraph, you might have noticed I avoided this word. You might have guessed that I don’t particularly like the word “bequest.” If you did, you’re right.

First, many people don’t really understand what a “bequest” is. Second, many of those who do understand the word think it is something only rich folks do. Third, the word sounds funereal to some.

Instead of using the word “bequest,” talk with prospects in simple, easy to understand terms. Don’t ask them to make a charitable bequest commitment. Ask your prospects to include your organization in their will.

Philanthropy. This is a great word. It comes from a Greek word literally meaning “love of humankind.” Unfortunately, some prospects, and even some donors, find the word alienating.

I remember speaking with a woman while we were waiting in the wings at a National Philanthropy Day luncheon. I was about to present her with the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning of Greater Philadelphia Legacy Award for Planned Giving Philanthropist of the Year. She told me she was honored to be present, but she wanted me to know, “I’m not really a philanthropist.”

I explained to the award recipient what the word “philanthropy” means. And I explained that it is not a term that is exclusive to the wealthy. I made sure she understood that she is indeed a philanthropist. I’m glad I had the chance to explain “philanthropy” to this caring donor. Sadly, we don’t always have such an opportunity.

If you’re thinking about using the word “philanthropy,” know your audience and know whether the term will resonate. Just keep in mind that 70 percent of people with investible assets of $1 million or more do not consider themselves wealthy, according to The UBS Investor Watch. If your prospects think “philanthropy” is only for the wealthy, and they’re not wealthy, you’re going to have some problems if you toss around the word. Words such as “legacy” or “support” might do nicely instead.

Generous. Again, this is a word that can work, but can also be problematic, depending on your audience. Many donors think that Bill Gates is “generous,” but they don’t necessarily think their own giving is, even if it fits your description of a major gift. Instead, they might think, “I’m just giving what I can. It’s not much, but it’s what I can do.”

Your prospects might think you’re looking only for “generous” support, and they might equate “generous” with “massive.” In other words, they might not think you want or need the gift they’re capable of giving.

Another problem with using “generous” is that it can reduce donors to their gifts. We all can agree that donors are certainly much more than their donation. So, particularly when thanking supporters, thank them for “caring” rather than for their “generosity.” Alternatively, thank them for both or thank them for their “meaningful support.”

Please RSVP. Nonprofit organizations use events to cultivate prospects, raise money, thank donors, and generate publicity, among other things. Charities usually send invitations to events and encourage recipients to indicate whether they will attend. The term “RSVP” is often used for this purpose.

Unfortunately, many organizations mistakenly use the phrase “Please RSVP.” This one is simply redundant. “RSVP” is an abbreviation of a French phrase: répondez s’il vous plaît. Translated, the phrase means essentially, “please respond.”

So, if you say “Please RSVP,” you’re really saying, “Please, please respond.” Unless you’re intending to beg someone to respond, please do not add the unnecessary “please.”

I could list other words and phrases that make me cringe at times. When used cautiously, you can use some of these without problem. However, using the words or phrases under the wrong circumstances will do more than make me cringe. You’ll also do the same for your prospects or donors.

To discover six fantastic words to use when communicating with prospects and donors, read my post: “Power Words that Inspire.”

I invite you to share your own favorite words, or those that make you cringe, below.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

22 Responses to “5 Words or Phrases that Can Cause Donors to Cringe”

  1. Michael,
    While I will agree with you that Planned Giving, Bequest, and Philanthropy are often misunderstood, and Please RSVP is redundant, I am not so sure that I agree about the word Generous.

    Yes, many do think of generous in terms of size, but I see it differently. In the New Testament of the Bible, (yes, I have read it) Jesus tells a story of two people who go into the Temple. One is a wealthy man who makes a large gift that is a small fraction of his worth, and one is a poor widow who gives a couple of coins. As Jesus points out to his followers, the poor widow is far more generous than the rich man because in comparison, her two coins were a greater sacrifice. Regardless of the size of the gift, any donation to a worthy cause is generous.

    On a side note, with all this talk about words, I feel you and/or Mary should have the Tom Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood” playing in the background as your soundtrack. (ha)

    • Richard, thank you for commenting and sharing the music link. I completely agree with you regarding the meaning of “generous.” That’s one reason why I don’t always object to the use of the word. However, I urge caution. Many prospects and donors don’t really understand what we mean by “generous.” Focus group studies have revealed that some donors choose not to give because they think, since they can’t make a mega-gift, that their gift would not be wanted or needed by the organization. Some folks have even voiced a sense of embarrassment over their ability to give. Some are willing to make a significant gift, just not one they consider “generous” relative to their means. So, to avoid misunderstandings and to minimize the risk of embarrassing a prospect, we need to be careful about how we speak about generosity, theirs and others’. There are two ways to do this: 1) use “generous” less and “caring” more, or 2) use “generous” and “caring” together.

  2. Good list, Michael. And special congratulations, because I think this area is one of the toughest to reduce to simple language. As you say, terms like “planned giving” are professional jargon – and as such, are useful. That’s their purpose – the shorthand we use with each other. But it means nothing to most donors.

    I do like and use “generous” often. I try to use the word to point to the *person*, though, not to the gift. Whether it’s a $10 gift or a $10,000, I like to assume that the donor made that gift out of their own generous spirit. Words like “generous”, “caring” and “kind”, when used to describe the donor or the donor’s actions may very well inspire those sort of actions!

    • Mary, thanks for commenting and for being the inspiration for my post. I actually mostly agree with you concerning the word “generous.” I’m not completely opposed to the word; I just want it used with extreme caution and sensitivity for how others might define it. As I mentioned in my response to Richard, prospects can be made to feel embarrassed by what they can or are willing to give if we overuse “generous” when describing their gift or the gifts of others. A prospect might be willing to make a significant gift, but might not necessarily find the gift to be “generous” relative their own particular ability. For example, if a billionaire chooses to make a $50,000 bequest commitment, it’s not a gift that the donor might believe to be particularly “generous.” Kind? Yes. Caring? Yes. Thoughtful. Yes. But, generous? If we were to thank this person for his generosity, it just might generate some awkward feelings. Again, I’m not suggesting we ban the word “generous.” I’m just urging caution. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify my position.

  3. Um, LOVE THIS!!! I created a Top 5 Words to Avoid List to Achieve Messaging Awesomeness, mainly to get rid of words used early in the engagement cycle that make people either yawn or cringe or feel baffled. Your point about ‘generous’ is really interesting, as is Mary’s suggestion of making sure the adjective is referring to the person, not the gift. Thanks for making this Word Nerds Day!

  4. Thanks for your list, Michael. If someone doesn’t quite understand the terms we may use, such as planned giving, philanthropy, and bequest, then their use may only serve to put a distance between organization and supporter. Like the other commenters, I think of the word “generous” as being used to describe not only the amount of money a person donates, but also the act of giving the donation of money or time.

    • Nicole, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I knew when I wrote the piece that putting the word “generous” on the list would be a bit controversial. Let me just stress that I’m not completely opposed to the word. I simply urge caution and limitation. We need to consider the unintended consequences of using the word, consider whether or not the context is indeed appropriate, and consider whether the intended audience will really understand what we’re trying to say. When we thank someone for being “generous,” we’re generally talking about the amount of money or time she has given. When we thank someone for “caring,” we’re recognizing so much more than the financial or time transaction.

  5. AMEN! – however, i really don’t like the word “legacy” either. it is sooo over-used and vague. Can conjure some of those same images of death and “it’s only for the wealthy”. Still have’t come up with an adequate alternative, though. Do your followers have any suggestions?

    • Laura, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that “legacy” is an imperfect word. However, it’s still better than others. But, we do need to be careful. For example, one of my problems with describing planned gifts as legacy gifts is that not all planned gifts really involve legacy. Is a $1,000 gift from an IRA really a legacy gift? I don’t think so. But, I do believe it’s a planned gift. Wordsmithing is a tricky business at times. 🙂

  6. I suggest that the wisdom here goes a bit deeper than the rather technical level of selecting the appropriate vocabulary. Isn’t this about an appreciation of donors as individual people rather than a target demographic or ‘audience’? And about our own preference for the comfort zone of professional terms like ‘planned giving’ over the simple and empathic language of real human relationships?

    • Rob, thank you for highlighting the underlying message of my post. Virtually everything I write has donor centeredness at its core. Not only do I believe it’s the right approach in human relations, I also think it’s the most effective approach for building meaningful relationships for nonprofit organizations.

  7. Great list Michael. Agree with a lot of what you, and others, have said (especially “planned giving” — as if other major gifts are spur of the moment.). On philanthropy, however, I disagree. While I’ve certainly heard people say “I’m not a philanthropist,” I do see it as part of my mission to enlighten folks and make them feel really good about their giving. When they demur, my general experience is that this comes from a feeling that maybe what they give isn’t really enough to qualify their giving as philanthropy. Of course, this is wrong. When people give they are demonstrating their values. All of philanthropy is based in values “Love of humankind.”. It’s transformational, rather than transactional. Which makes it quite different in people’s minds than “fundraising” — which most folks connote with “money.” Whenever I ask folks to throw out words they connote with fundraising I get all sorts of negative words. The opposite is true for philanthropy. That’s why I love it. It’s uplifting and allows people to experience the joy of giving. Fundraising is servant to philanthropy. It helps us fulfill the values we seek to enact in the world. It doesn’t stand on its own. That’s why we need to do some reframing. People love philanthropy. It’s fundraising they don’t like. Let’s help folks do what they love to do.

    • Claire, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I would just caution that “philanthropy” is an often misunderstood word, not always but often. So, when using the word, we need to be careful, and we need to understand what the other person is really hearing.

      Now, I’d like to look at “fundraising” versus “philanthropy” since you touched on the issue. The reason “fundraising” draws a negative response from folks is that it is not a donor-centered term; it’s very much an organization-centric word. By contrast, “philanthropy” is all about the donor and his or her dreams for a better world. That’s why donors feel better about “philanthropy” than “fundraising.” Many of us think of what we do as “fundraising” or, if one prefers “development.” Instead, we would do better to think of ourselves as “philanthropy facilitators.”

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. I find the caution of the word “generous” food for thought and have made a note of the alternatives to consider using here!


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