Words & terms matter

There is great power in the words that we use — they can inspire and motivate, they can create clarity or confusion.

Written BY

Sarah Obenauer

Sarah is the Co-founder of Purpose Craft. She runs Make a Mark, 12-hour design and development marathons benefitting local humanitarian causes. She also publishes Limitless, built to create a community of women surviving and thriving with Rheumatoid Arthritis. She has been working with nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations and businesses for nearly a decade.

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October 29, 2020

There is great power in the words that we use — they can inspire and motivate, they can create clarity or confusion.

This concept is something pretty unique that I’ve found incredibly valuable across organizations of different shapes and sizes, and it came from a need that we had at Make a Mark. Make a Mark runs 12-hour design and development "make-a-thons" benefitting nonprofits across the globe. Our purpose is simple: to provide resources and foster an environment where community organizations and visual communicators can engage with one another to better our world.

After a year or two of running make-a-thons, we noticed that some of our volunteers were using terms that didn’t seem to fit or click with our brand. While this was only a handful of people, we feared that these terms would spread over time and change the relational nature of our program.

Some of the Words We Don’t Like include referring to our nonprofit partners as clients, or our makers as consultants. We want the relationship between makers and nonprofits to be a partnership and not a simple transaction. These types of transactions can happen anywhere, but we pride ourselves on building a community that understands and is invested in one another.

At Make a Mark events, the makers build true connections with the nonprofits that they are serving. Not only do the nonprofits get a broader understanding of the power of design and technology for the humanitarian sector, they themselves shine a light on the problems that those in our towns and cities face.

Our make-a-thons are not about giving away free design and development labor all year, they are about creating a controlled environment for pro-bono collaboration. We work to create a safe space where both the nonprofits and makers are appreciated, respected, and understood. We work diligently to scope and scale projects so nonprofits walk away with quality materials they can use immediately, and makers are able to keep their time protected.

You likely have something similar in your organization. You take a principled stance in what you believe in, but there may be words that tear that down.

Once we first heard some language that didn’t reflect this community, we outlined Words We Like and Words We Don’t Like.

Words We Like

+ Team

+ Collaboration

+ Community

+ Family

+ Pro-Bono

+ Skills-Based Volunteering

Words We Don’t Like

+ Client

+ Consultant

+ Contractor

+ Free

+ Hack (we’re not hacking, we’re creating)

Now it is obviously impossible to tell everyone what words they can and cannot say. That isn’t what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to create a restrictive list of words that will get you into trouble, but we built these lists into our brand guide to align all staff and volunteers on who we are, and how that is reflected in our language.

By coming up with these lists as a team, everyone will be using the language from the Words We Like category, which will eventually catch on and spread across the business or organization. This language starts with the core team and is reflected in our behavior.

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The term “rebrand” can evoke a plethora of emotions – excitement, fear, hope, anxiety. You’ve established your organization’s brand over the course of years. You’ve grown accustomed to it, attached to it, even if the design and the language aren’t suited to who you organization is. Now just might be the time for a rebrand.
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