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Politically correct language and donor relations

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Politically correct language and protocols offer us more inclusive ways to write, think and act. If we were to apply those same standards of correctness to our donor relations community, what words would we need to eliminate from our vocabulary? What words show dated thinking and stale ideas?

And worse, which words do a disservice to our donors?

Here are my top five. Feel free to add your own!

1. Giving circles/societies

Giving is from our perspective, not our donors’. It’s almost crass to call them giving circles because it draws attention to the money and not the motivation. It’s like saying “we like you because you give to us” as opposed to “we want to recognize you for supporting us.” They are recognition circles. The function of recognition circles is to give staff a structure and focus, highlighting donors we should be paying attention to, based on the giving behavior they exhibit that we want to recognize and reinforce – loyal, leadership, lifetime, legacy. Calling them giving circles leads to all kinds of bad quid pro quo language like…

2. Members and benefits

We are not a country club, so our donors are not members -- unless, of course, they are giving to something like an alumni association or museum membership program. PC donor relations phrases are “welcome to the X circle” and “because of your generosity, you will be included in the X circle.” Calling them members implies that they paid money to be in the circle. Most donors don’t give to get; they give to make a difference. From our perspective, they didn’t make a gift and therefore we’re giving them some tchotchke and membership to a circle. Rather, they gave to change the world, and because of their generosity, we choose to recognize them.

Moreover, if you tell your donors, “If you give $X, you will receive ABC benefits,” you’re setting up a quid pro quo arrangement that lessens the charitable contribution aspect of their gift. Instead, use general language that refers to things with no market value, courtesies like special access or insider communications. And truth be told, that’s what donors want anyway. Pins and medallions are OK, but what they really want is to experience that special relationship with your institution. Keeping your offerings general also enables you to be flexible in what you do for these groups. Invite them to a tour one year, then offer them a lecture series the next.

3. Recipients and beneficiaries

We’d do best to avoid using our inside baseball terms with donors. Rather than referring to the student who received their scholarship or fellowship as a recipient, how about saying scholar or fellow? If I’m Pat Mahoney and I establish a scholarship in my name, I’d like to meet the first Mahoney scholar. Not only are scholar and fellow less jargony, they sound more, well, scholarly. And they carry the Mahoney brand!

4. Stewarding donor/prospects

From a purely literal perspective, you can’t steward a prospect because prospects haven’t made a gift yet. You cultivate a prospect. Some donors are also prospects, and you can use stewardship as a cultivation tool, but you can’t steward a prospect. Technically, one stewards funds, not people. You can be a steward and perform stewardship, but as far as the verb goes, you steward funds. Stewardship involves gift documentation, compliance and reporting, and it refers to the fund. Donor relations involves acknowledgment, recognition and engagement for donors.

5. Supporting our campaign

Donors don’t support campaigns, they make the world better. Though we may live and die according to our campaign goals and metrics, donors couldn’t care less. Remember to see things from their eyes, not ours. Thank them for supporting your mission, not your capital campaign.

In all our efforts, we should strive to be less transactional, more relational. We should focus on the donor, not our institution.

Now it’s your turn to share! What words do you think we should eliminate to ensure our donors have the best experience possible?

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