The Impactful Collaborator’s Guide to Nonprofit Clichés – And How to Avoid Them

If you’ve worked in a charitable nonprofit or a foundation for more than a day, you’ve probably heard at least half the following words more than once. If you’ve been in this environment for more than a few weeks, most of them have probably become a part of your daily verbiage. You may even have noticed that if you use enough of them in a presentation, a typical nonprofit audience will smile dreamily and agree with whatever you say.

What nobody told you is that once you leave the comfortable confines of the nonprofit world, these words may cease to be shortcuts to success. They may even get you into trouble, as bosses or clients associate different meanings with the words—or worse, think you don’t know any better ones.

But all is not lost. To save you from yourself, we have compiled a list of the most common suspects in nonprofit language and provided you with an alternative vocabulary. While using it may earn you a reputation as a radical or a boat-rocker, you can take comfort in your martyrdom by thinking of the great service your linguistic abrasiveness provides to the nonprofit sector.


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “Our charity was formed to address the problem of teen pregnancy.”

A verb meaning “to devote effort to something.” You will be hard pressed to find a mission statement that does not use this word or “promote.” Use something else and prove your linguistic prowess to anyone who hears you.

  • Use Instead:
  • Attend to
  • Concentrate on
  • Focus on
  • Take up
  • Undertake
  • Deal with


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “The catalyst of poverty in the area was the closing of the car factory.”

A noun meaning “something which excites activity.” Definitely not the worst culprit on this list, this word is typically used by people who think they are being clever by using it. Unfortunately, it seems all the clever people in nonprofits know this word.

  • Use Instead:
  • Cause
  • Impetus
  • Incitement
  • Motivation
  • Spark


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “My co-worker and I collaborated on that project.”

A verb meaning “To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.” This is the most common culprit in the nonprofit sector. But be careful with it—most people think it is synonymous with “teamwork,” and use it to refer to people working on a project together. It actually refers to an effort in which two separate parties share in an effort which is aimed to produce a return that is separately worthwhile for each party. It originally comes from a term used to denote wartime traitors who make a deal with the enemy. What exactly are you insinuating?

  • Use Instead:
  • Cooperate
  • Abet
  • Work together
  • Join forces with
  • Team up
  • Support
  • Collude (negative connotation)
  • (Noun “collaboration”: alliance, association, joint effort, team effort)


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “The director convened a meeting to discuss the problem.”

A verb meaning “to cause to come together formally.” It’s not awful—but it’s not as impressive as it sounds, either. And don’t, for heaven’s sake, use it to refer to a get-together. If it doesn’t involve invitations, an agenda, and minutes, don’t mention this word.

  • Use Instead:
  • Assemble
  • Call
  • Gather
  • Muster
  • Summon
  • Bring together


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “We want to empower young people.”

A verb meaning “to equip or supply with an ability.” Note the last three words. With what are you empowering this party? Money? An ability to breakdance? Be specific. The hippies were empowered too.

  • Use Instead:
  • Enable
  • Encourage
  • Provide
  • Supply


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “I facilitated dialogue between the opposing groups.”

A verb meaning “to make easy or easier.” Nonprofit functions often have “facilitators,” which is trade speak for “the person who is running this thing.” But unless your facilitator is facilitating the facilitation, you might want another word or two up your sleeve.

  • Use Instead (verbs):
  • Ease
  • Simplify
  • Aid
  • Expedite
  • Further
  • (Noun “facilitator”: mediator, enabler, implementer, or more technical terms directly related to the position in question)


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “What is the impact of this program?”

A noun meaning “the power of making a strong, immediate impression.” This noun has also become common as a verb, as in “the program impacted a lot of people.” As a noun, this word is wildly overused in nonprofit circles. As a verb, it’s awkward and unspecific if not cringe-worthy (and it doesn’t tell your listener what kind of impact was caused). Find something else.

  • Use Instead (nouns):
  • Effect
  • Force
  • Consequence
  • Result
  • Power
  • Significance
  • Use Instead (verbs):
  • Affect
  • Influence
  • Alter
  • Change
  • Transform


Is not a word. Don’t try it.


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “I want to spur innovation in this company!”

A noun meaning “the act of introducing something new,” or even “something new” (as in “the company’s latest cell phone was quite an innovation”). This is usually used as a synonym for “inventiveness” (which it isn’t), or “newness” (which is at least close). Next to “collaboration,” this is the most overused word in the nonprofit sector. Imagine the power you have if you are armed with an arsenal of alternative words!

  • Use Instead:
  • Novelty
  • Originality
  • Newness
  • Freshness, or fresh thinking
  • Variation
  • Shift
  • Modification
  • Departure


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “She inspired loyalty in her followers.”

A verb meaning “to influence or animate with an idea or purpose.” If we were all inspired as often as we hear the word, we’d have to be sedated.

  • Use Instead:
  • Excite
  • Motivate
  • Induce
  • Instigate
  • Prompt
  • Cause
  • Arouse
  • Animate


Sample Nonprofit Usage: “Our company finds and promotes new ideas in philanthropy.”

A verb meaning “to contribute to” or “to advocate.” Can you write a mission statement without it?

  • Use Instead:
  • Help
  • Advance
  • Advocate
  • Further
  • Contribute to
  • Develop

Thanks to M. Glasser and T. Findley for their help in compiling this list.