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  • Writer's pictureSara Kuehl

The Power of a Single Word in Nonprofit Copywriting

One word can transform your message's meaning and impact. Discover how word choice can help you create compelling messages for social good.

A copywriter brainstorming word options in a notebook

During a company-sponsored book drive, employees received two emails asking for charitable donations. One email resulted in not only more donations, but larger donations.


What set these two emails apart?


A single word.


The less successful email framed the charitable contributions as donations. The more successful email framed them as gifts.


This simple change had a profound effect. Gifts helped the donors feel closer to the recipients on a psychological level, which increased their giving.


Every word choice matters in copywriting. A well chosen word can clarify your message, stir an emotion, or compel a reader to action. A poorly chosen word can leave your reader confused, bored, or even repelled by your message.


Let’s explore what makes language so powerful and how to choose effective words for nonprofit branding and marketing.


What Language Can Do

Freedom. Hope. Justice. Change.


Words like these have launched movements and altered the course of history.


Language is powerful.


It educates, entertains, and inspires. It tells stories, creates pictures, and evokes empathy. It shapes beliefs and behaviors. And it expresses your organization’s rallying call for a better tomorrow.


To craft compelling messages for social good, it’s important to consider the nuances of each word. How it might add to or detract from your message. And how it might affect someone’s perception of your message.


Why Word Choice Matters

Every word conveys two things:

  1. Meaning

  2. Feeling

That’s why there are so many words with similar meanings. Their dictionary definitions may be almost identical, but what separates them is their connotation—the positive or negative associations they carry. How they make you feel.


Changing a single word has the potential to transform your message’s meaning and impact. If you describe someone as frugal or thrifty, they’ll probably take it as a compliment. (Thanks! I try to be thoughtful with how I spend my money.) But if you call them stingy or cheap, they’ll take it as a criticism. (Ouch! Guess I’ll change my name to Scrooge.) Connotation can make all the difference.


Language also forms the foundation of your brand. Beyond your visual identity, your brand voice and messaging help you stand out from other organizations in how you communicate your mission, vision, and values.


Your name and tagline are some of the most memorable elements of your brand—and often prospective supporters’ first impression of your organization. In a few words, they express who you are and what you do. Your messaging builds on this to create consistency and authenticity in all of your marketing. So word choice is vital to nonprofit branding and marketing.


Choosing the Right Word

Thoughtful word choice starts with understanding:

  • your audience

  • the context of your message

  • the tone of your message

Are you trying to recruit local teens as volunteers or thank major donors for their recent gift? Are you using formal language for a grant proposal or conversational language for a social media post? Each situation calls for different word choice.


Let's take a closer look at how to choose the right word for different aspects of your branding and marketing efforts.


Naming

Naming (or renaming) your nonprofit organization requires careful consideration of each word’s meaning and connotation.


Consider Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the US. It was originally called Second Harvest, and later America’s Second Harvest, the Nation’s Food Bank Network. It didn’t become Feeding America until 2008. The former name described what the organization is: a network of food banks. But the current name focuses on their mission. It’s all about action.


This rebranding also takes advantage of the dual meaning of feeding as “both a fundamental need for survival and the opportunity to enrich lives.” With this single word, Feeding America says they’re not only nourishing people’s bodies—they’re nourishing people’s spirits. Now that’s a powerful message.


The nonprofit Resilience (formerly Rape Victim Advocates) changed names as part of a larger move toward more empowering language. Their new name aligned with a transition in their messaging: identifying clients as survivors rather than victims. While victim may be the appropriate term in a legal context, survivor has a more positive connotation for advocacy.


Rebranding is a significant process, but it’s sometimes necessary. If you’re considering a new name, mull over the nuances of each word’s meaning and how your audiences may receive it.


Taglines

A tagline is a quick way to communicate your mission, usually in about six words or less. It builds on your organization’s name by clarifying the work you do.


What makes a tagline effective? Let’s examine two examples.


The homepage of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The tagline Finding cures. Saving children. appears over a photo of a child flexing their bicep.

The tagline for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is "Finding cures. Saving children." Note their choice of verbs. Rather than the endless searching conveyed in words like seeking, finding captures a sense of urgency and confidence in their mission. They’re not attempting to find cures—they’re actually finding them. And they’re not just helping or treating children. Their work saves lives. That’s a compelling mission people can get behind.


Banner image for the Y's Annual Campaign. Text says Give for a better us.
Image: https://givebutter.com/2023YMCACCS

The Y’s tagline is just as concise: “For a better us.” Why us? Why not you? Or world? Us taps into their purpose of strengthening community. Beyond supporting your individual health and well-being, they emphasize human connection. At the Y, you’re not alone—you’re an important part of your local community. Amazing how much meaning is packed into a little word!


Short-form copywriting can be challenging. Every single word matters. That’s why you might go through dozens of versions until you find the right combination. Carefully consider each word’s meaning, connotation, and nuance. Ask yourself:

  • Does it capture our mission?

  • Does it make a strong statement?

  • Does it convey the right emotion and tone?

  • Would this rally people to our cause?

Messaging

How you talk about what you do matters almost as much as what you actually do. It influences how people view:

  • your organization

  • the problems you fight

  • the communities you serve

When writing, ask if your word choice is:

  1. Specific

  2. Inclusive

  3. Sensitive


Specific Word Choice

Use specific words to elevate your storytelling. A story’s details help the reader engage their senses and empathize with the characters. Notice how many vivid details charity: water packs into Abrehet’s story:

Instagram post from charity:water tells story of Abrehet's trek for clean water
Image: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cp01GIUpHZd

Collecting water doesn’t take 6 hours, it steals them from her. Abrehet doesn’t walk to get water, she treks. These word choices help us understand how deeply the lack of access to clean water impacts Abrehet's daily life.


Strong word choice combined with telling individuals' stories connects supporters with your mission in a powerful way.


Inclusive Word Choice

Research has found the use of gender-coded language in job descriptions (like using 'chairman' instead of the gender-neutral 'chairperson') affects applicants' sense of belonging in the hiring organization. This kind of language can reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate diversity gaps.


Choose inclusive words to communicate welcome and better represent all members of a community. Many colleges and universities, for example, are now using 'first-year student' instead of 'freshman.'


Even one letter can make a difference! For example, LGBTQ is more inclusive of the spectrum of sexuality and gender identities than LGBT. As language continues to evolve, what constitutes inclusive writing will evolve with it.


Sensitive Word Choice

In all causes, especially disability advocacy, it’s important to be sensitive in your use of person-first or identity-first language. For example:

  • Person-first: child with autism

  • Identity-first: Autistic child

Some people prefer person-first language to emphasize their humanity rather than their disability. Others prefer identity-first language because they consider their disability an essential part of who they are.


If you ignore communities’ preferences, they may believe you don’t value their perspectives or genuinely serve their needs. When you’re not sure, ask which term the community (or individual) prefers.

 

A single word can make all the difference in your nonprofit branding and marketing. To communicate with impact, pay close attention to the words you use. Consider your audience and the context and tone of your message to inform your word choice.


Need Help Crafting Your Nonprofit Communications?

With so many nuances to consider when writing, it’s easy to miss or overlook them. Especially when you're juggling multiple projects or roles. Working with a professional nonprofit copywriter will ensure your marketing campaigns get expert, undivided attention to maximize your success.

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