Clear The Fog From The Nonprofit Empire

Clear The Fog From The Nonprofit Empire
10 years, 4 months ago 1
Posted in: Blog

Jargon is the insider language of any particular industry. Scientists use it. Doctors do it. Sheet metal workers, too, I imagine. Journalists, supposed wordsmiths, may be most guilty with words like “hed, lede and nut graf.”

But at least we jargoned some short ones.

In the nonprofit world, jargon hovers like a dense fog over important stories that need to be told. And whomever wrote that first draft of grant etiquette had to be The King of Jargon. But we remain loyal disciples of the master template, reluctant to cause a stir by speaking plain English for fear of losing a grant.

Enough. The King of Jargon has no robes. Let the sunshine of clear language clear the fog from the nonprofit empire. At least, allow us to write grants in plain English.

I got in to this world on the fun side, hanging around with kids and teaching them to read and write. But now as a board member of several nonprofits and an advocate on a bigger plane with Social Venture Partners International and The Charity Defense Council, I see the most pressing need of all is to raise funds to “increase capacity.” Money is needed to create more programs to teach more, feed more, help more, everything more. To do that, I need to get off the playground and into the hard work of “development”.

“Capacity building” and “development” translated: Get out of the sandbox with the kids. Get us some money, or the sandbox washes away.

Got it. But as I explored the challenge of getting money, I studied the practice of grant writing. The language barrier was such that even Google Translate was of no help.

I’ve studied dozens of grant proposals of organizations that appear to be innovative and forward thinking. They do great work, have many supporters and bright futures, if the world is fair. But the world is not fair. Most humanitarians spend their days doing joyous work helping others. But their sleepness nights and weekends are filled with the tedious task of writing grants, in The King’s tortured, fog-laden language.

Sadly, it appears the deck is stacked against individuality and innovation. Leading-edge ideas are trapped in a prison of conformity and insider speak. Grant writing may be the most unfair of all games nonprofits have to play. While you may be able to speak about the good you do with pinache and passion, when you write a grant it likely gets translated into a lingua franca in which acronyms, multi-syllabic words and insider terms rule.

We must change the way we talk to one another, askers and givers. If we are to change our worlds, we must change our words.

This recent Charitable Words post explored the unfair scorecard hindering gutsy nonprofit start-ups and innovative ideas. My work with the Charity Defense Council is working to balance that playing field. I won’t repeat my rant here. But I encourage you to check out the Council’s web site to read more.

I understand it’s efficient to use templated terms to repurpose grants for various givers. There’s no need to start each grant application with a blank page. There are some basics that need to be  in all proposals: What’s the need? What are the goals? How will  it happen? What will it cost?

But it must have been a foggy, foggy night when someone, somewhere, wrote that first grant proposal draft that has been passed down for generations as a format. Like the  children’s game of telephone, users of the template piled on their own words to please an insider audience and the messages got muddled to incoherence. Clear and concise communication gave way to jargon and self-important terms.

Here’s a suggestion to unfog your message. Take a grant you are working on and plug it into this “Fog Index” calculator. See what happens. You can always go back to the original.

The Fog Index was developed in 1952 by American businessman Robert Gunning.  It’s been taught and applied in journalism schools and newsrooms since. The exercise is commonly used to confirm that text can be read easily by an intended audience. Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.  The Wall Street Journal has been indexed at 11. The Bible and Mark Twain run in single digits.

If you don’t trust the online calculator or just what to go through the exercise for fun, here’s how it works:

  • Select your full paragraphs  of around 100 words. (That seems long to me. But I like that thing called cadence).
  • Divide the number of words by the number of sentences.
  • Count the words with three or more syllables. Don’t include proper nouns that can’t be shortened and don’t include common suffixes (-es, -ed, or -ing) as a syllable.
  • Add the average sentence length and the percentage of complex words.
  • Multiply the result by 0.4.

If your fog index comes up in the high teens, you probably want to tighten up. If you hover around the 10-12 range you’re communicating well.  If lower, you may be trying to be a bit too simple.  But simple is better than foggy, in my view.

Mark Twain would agree. Remember his words? “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.”

Clear and concise writing takes work. But your cause is worth the effort. Readers of grants may even thank you.

(FYI, go ahead and check my Fog Index, if you wish. My calculations showed from 9 to 12, depending on the paragraph’s context. I know I have some work to do, too).




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  1. […] by others – some good, some…let’s just say not “best practices” material.  Most seem formulaic and jargon-filled. […]