How has your nonprofit been impacted this year by conversations and challenges related to race, equity, and diversity? No matter your organization’s mission or purpose, we all have an opportunity and responsibility to be on the side of striving for justice and dismantling racism and other forms of oppression. This work can start with committing to use equitable language in our grant proposals and other donor communications that empowers, rather than disempowers, the people and groups our organizations engage and serve.
Below are five suggestions to deploy equitable language in your grant proposals and other organizational materials. For additional support, visit our Grants Plus Racial Justice Grant Resource Center, which we are constantly refreshing with language tools and resource guides, webinar recordings, and grant listings for organizations leading the way to a more equitable and just society.
1. Use specific language rather than vague euphemisms.
In our writing, we can tend to lean on euphemisms like “at-risk” or “underserved” with good intentions to be non-offensive. But these labels can obscure our meaning. We gain clarity in specificity – for example, saying that “the majority of our students are Black and Latinx,” if that’s the case, as opposed to signaling, but not saying, race by using a label like “underrepresented.”
The major gifts fundraiser Carlton Ford writes in an Op-Ed published in the Miami Herald: “‘I propose that all well-meaning institutions and leadership investing in ‘underserved’ and ‘underrepresented’ communities take a moment and ask of themselves: Whom do we serve by labeling an entire community as ‘under’ anything? Second, what might be gained by being specific?”
2. Don’t use an adjective in place of a person.
If we use an adjective (like “homeless”) in place of a person, we imply that a person is the condition that our organization attempts to address. And yet a person without shelter is not only a homeless person. They are a person experiencing homelessness, which acknowledges they are presently interacting with a situation and its attending challenges—but not that their identity and personhood is inseparable from this circumstance.
3. Allow people to define and describe themselves.
Is there an authority on how we should describe people? Yes: those people themselves. We must proactively engage with and listen to the people in our communities and the people we serve, in order to take their lead and understand their own language uses and preferences. That may mean acknowledging multiple preferences—in the autism community, for example, you might describe “autistic people and people with autism” based on varying preferences within that group.
4. Address systems, not just symptoms.
If we talk only about symptoms (“chronic high school dropout rates”) and not their underlying systemic causes (“educational barriers prevalent in Black neighborhoods”) we miss the opportunity to present a bigger frame and a more compelling, complete case about the problems our organizations seek to address. Talking about both symptoms and systems also redirects the reader’s understanding: from describing a personal issue that implies individuals are responsible to describing a systemic issue that we must correct as a society.
5. Move farther along the spectrum from “exploitive” to “empowered.”
As writers, we have the power to make choices. We can use language that denies agency and oversimplifies a condition (“these poor, at-risk children”) or we can actively seek to use language that denotes respect and dignity, and calls us to solve crucial societal challenges (“capable children who deserve to learn, but who face multiple obstacles”). By using specific language that acknowledges systems as well as symptoms, we can elicit empathy at the same time we empower people.
For a deeper discussion of these strategies, watch the “Check Your Labels” webinar recording available in our Grants Plus Racial Justice Grant Resource Center. Have a question or comment on this topic? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was contributed by Dana Textoris, Managing Director of Grants Plus
Dana Textoris is Managing Director at Grants Plus, a national leader in grant seeking consulting. Grants Plus has secured more than $165 million in grant funding for nonprofit organizations around the country since 2007.