Nonprofit Four-Letter Words

In every organization or business, there are words that float around the office. Some of these you can attach to and they just click. Some of these are overused or simply don’t represent your organization’s culture. These words are four-letter words.

As part of Make a Mark, we noticed that many participants were using words that just didn’t make sense to us as a brand. Not only did these words frustrate our team, but they were actively harming our Brand Identity and Ethics.

At Make a Mark, we build our organization on a collaborative environment that allows Makers and nonprofits to work together to create something brilliant for their organizations. This came organically out of the first event and is crucial to our success.

This partnership begins with planning meetings bringing together the team of Makers and the nonprofit a few weeks prior to a Make-a-Thon. This is an opportunity for these two groups with separate ideas and expectations to meet for one hour — get to know one another and get aligned on the project. During these meetings, we discuss everything from the mission of the organization to the deliverables of the project and much more in between. The camaraderie that develops in these teams is moving.

With that being said, during and after the first year of the event, we still hit issues with our four-letter words. After hearing those words over and over, we decided to sit down as a team and figure out what they were, why they existed and how we could document them for the future.

This is how we came up with the Make a Mark Official Words We Like and Words We Don’t Like. Pretty simple huh?

So, let’s break it down.

Words We Like: Partner/Partnership, Collaborative/Collaboration, Neighbor, Community

Most of these are easy to understand why we chose them. It fits with our organization’s purpose to be collective and relational with each other. Those we help are our ‘neighbors’ not the ‘needy’, the nonprofits we work with are our ‘partners’ not our ‘clients’.

This brings me to the Words We Don’t Like.

Words We Don’t Like: Client, Consultant, Employee, Contractor, Needy

In our first year, we noticed that almost everyone involved was using the term ‘client’ for the nonprofits. Technically, this term is correct according to Merriam-Webster.

2. a person who engages the professional advice or services of another

But the tone that it sets is that the nonprofit plays no role in the creation of their work. It portrays a very transactional, cold relationship between these two groups that simply does not exist. Not to mention, that it implies that they need us to protect and save them, which is not true. Check out this first definition of client.

1. one that is under the protection of another

However, I can understand why this term is used. Many of the people involved in our Make-a-Thons are freelancers and often do work with clients, both nonprofit and for-profit. This is a common term and not meant to be harmful. But it is up to us to explain why the nonprofits should be referred to as our partners and teammates.

You can never make someone use certain language just because that is the language you prefer, nor would you want to do so. These language changes have to come from the inside out. Over the past three years, our team started using more of the terms under Words We Like, and we’ve noticed an overall shift in how people are talking about Make a Mark.

Getting your executive team, staff and board members involved in defining this language is vital in getting this language to resonate and stick.

  1. As a group, revisit your organization’s purpose, mission, vision and core values.
  2. With this in mind, write ‘words we like’ and ‘words we don’t like’ on opposite sides of a white board.
  3. Give everyone a turn to share their own ‘words they like’ and ‘words they don’t like’ and allow for explanation time.
  4. Circle the words that you want to focus on for each category moving forward.
  5. Place these terms in your brand book and around your office and revisit them before key strategy and/or communications meetings.

The words that we developed fueled our recent rebrand.

Each group (Makers, nonprofits, local community) represents a circle in a venn diagram and the place where these 3 circles meet is where Make a Mark lives. The is the perfect merger of authenticity and passion. Make a Mark could not exist without all 3 of these groups — the creativity of the Makers, the dedication of the nonprofits and the generosity of the local community.

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