This article is originally published as a Linkedin article.

I saw this fiasco on Twitter, and it reminded me of an article I read some time back. It was about the sensitivity and responsibility that must be inherent in nonprofit marketing and communications; so nonprofits don’t end up reinforcing the very stereotypes they are trying to beat. 

The language, tone, and content of communication – internal or external – is critical for a nonprofit, more so than a business, in my view. I say this because while a public communication lapse such as the above can be explained away with an editorial lapse for a business, for a nonprofit, such a lapse questions the very core of the nonprofit’s ethos. 

In the above situation, the following questions came to my mind:

• How did this image get approved?

• Was the designer unaware of the condescending nature of these terms while he/she did the copy-paste job?

• How was the content writer (presumably from the organisation) unaware of the condescending nature of these terms?

• Considering that the organisation symbolises the empowerment and enablement of people with disability, does every member of the organisation receive any training on the proper way to address their primary audience?

By ignorance or insensitivity, words matter

I must admit that when I started working for nonprofits, I wasn’t cognizant of many of these nuances myself. If you consider this carefully, you may find you too, use language that can marginalise or discriminate. For example, phrases like “she’s a tomboy,” or “he cries like a girl,” or “retarded behaviour” … all of these perpetuate a stereotype. This can be ignorance or just insensitivity.

While educating myself on the sector, I came across some articles on “progressive language,” “asset-based approach,” and “people-first language.” These were eye-openers.

I am thankful I learned this. The knowledge has influenced my communication for nonprofit clients and how I explain a situation or circumstance generally. It’s changed my perception.

An asset-based approach

An asset-based approach or a people-first language considers that “language used should focus on positive outcomes and personal strengths, rather than problems and barriers. Language is powerful and can have a direct impact on participant experiences and program success.” (Reference: Words Matter: Amplifying the Message through an Asset-Based Approach.)

An example of a switch from a deficits-based approach to an assets-based approach could be:

The women have no choice but to become sex workers.


With the right employment training and support, the women would have the courage and confidence to pursue a life of independence and dignity.

The goal is to not label the people one serves but to make them resilient, hopeful, and empowered. That would encourage a growth mindset and a zeal to improve and strive for success.

Progressive language

Progressive language leans towards a strength-based or needs-based approach. Instead of focusing on the negatives and “the lack of,” the narrative could focus on the potential if the resources were made available.

Furthermore, it advocates that individuals not be defined by their race, disability, economic status, sexual orientation, age, or something else instead of their personhood. (Reference: Framing Matters: Are You Inadvertently Harming the People You Hope to Serve with the Language You Use?)

Therefore, word choices like the following could be switched in nonprofit messaging.

• Disabled person or handicapped to person with disability

• Mentally retarded to person with an intellectual disability

• Poor family to family in poverty

• Incarcerated to people in prison

It is also important to note that the usage of language changes over time. The terms expand to accommodate newer issues that demand public attention.

As communication specialists, we need to be aware of these transitions and the cause behind the change. As nonprofit organisations, we must also share this knowledge with the communities we serve, driving attention to public recognition and change in mindset on the issues that trouble them. This could lead to a positive change in their own evaluation and self-worth. 

How to learn more about progressive language?

Style guides are available for different domains served within the nonprofit sector. Some examples are:

Language shapes reality. Therefore, it makes sense to be discerning about the words we use. The words we choose to describe a person, community, or situation can become the mould into which they fit themselves. 

That’s a terrible crime; for who are we to demarcate the potential of an individual or group? Without a definition, they could go any distance. And we have witnessed many such miraculous stories in our lives, time and again!

So, let’s be progressive, in our words, thoughts, and actions.