Please no ‘safety net’ for charity clichés

If you’re stuck for light reading at the moment, you could do worse than Robert Hutton’s ‘Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News‘. Hutton dissects and debunks many of the ridiculous but persistent terms that crop up uniquely in the media. These oddities – ‘lags’, ‘chiefs’, ‘to trouser’, etc. – make up much of the language of our newspapers, tabloids in particular.

But those in glass houses shouldn’t throw thesauruses. The charity world has at least its fair share of odd and impenetrable jargon. Which is fine, of course, between consenting engaged stakeholders, but we shouldn’t inflict it on innocent bystanders – particularly the media who will delete it before it reaches their readers, if they haven’t already deleted your email.

And beyond jargon, there are those terms that are so hackneyed it’s surely time to retire them.

Here in no particular order are some of my personal bêtes noires, with a charity focus. I’m not saying you should never use these – well, some of them I am − but if you find yourself writing these phrases, please stop and ask if it’s really necessary. With thanks to @ncvochlo, @karlwilding and @mattgilfeather for their suggestions.

We know what we mean, but when talking to civilians, something like ‘the difference we make’ is far kinder.
Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. No, I am a curmudgeon. But this has fallen irretrievably down the well of overuse. See also passion/ate.
The approved scale of concern runs from somewhat concerned via concerned, very concerned and deeply concerned, to extremely concerned. Make sure you get it right or people will doubt your sincerity and judgement.
Too many
As in ‘too many children hungry’, ‘too many patients untreated’, ‘too many kittens dying’. We don’t know how many but it’s bad. Curiously implies there would be an acceptable level of hungry children, untreated patients or dead kittens. See also too often… and for some…
No one knows what this means. Really, no one.
Think piece
A downright ugly word combination. Also, do some pieces not require thought?
Voluntary sector
I’ll be hung for treason for this one. But really, as opposed to the involuntary sector? Again, we (maybe) know what we mean, but we can’t reasonably expect the wider world to bend to our whims. You’ll rarely see this in an NCVO press release – we use ‘charities’ or ‘charities and community groups’ when talking to non-specialist media. It’s not perfect but neither’s voluntary sector. See also third sector.
Preferably effective, with a diverse range of stakeholders.
You know exactly where they are, and you can probably get the bus there.
Safety net
Usually vital, often part of an essential service.
Clarion call
An awful cliché which makes me wince every time I have the misfortune to read it. (Surely no one ever says it out loud.) Also has overtones of great pomposity. I’d rather you forcibly scraped my nails down a blackboard.
I think you mean people.

Full disclosure

I’ve been guilty of using some of these terms unnecessarily on occasion. Of course, it isn’t always easy to get language right. When I asked a journalist friend’s opinion the first thing she mentioned was service users. But we know why this term’s used, and no one’s come up with anything better. Some newspapers will tolerate it, others won’t. You need to find a balance between accurately (and in this case respectfully) describing what you do, and putting it in terms others will understand. It often helps to conduct the basic test of asking yourself how you would explain what you want to say to a friend in the pub.

Equally, I don’t want to diminish our language

Or make the words we say less good, as the Derek Zoolander school of ‘plain English’ zealots would have it. Words have distinct meanings and implications – there is a difference between use and utilise, despite what some believe. But there’s a place for poetry and complexity and a press release almost certainly isn’t it.

Media relations often involves doing things quickly – pause to perfect your phrases and you could be too late. But if you can get into the habit of using some more pleasant language, the diverse range of stakeholders you’re engaging with will thank you.

Any words or phrases you’d like to add to the list?

Further reading

Replies on Twitter

This entry was posted in Practical support and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Aidan Warner Aidan Warner is NCVO’s communications manager. He writes about charity communications. He has previously worked at the BBC, the General Medical Council and Mind, the mental health charity.

48 Responses to Please no ‘safety net’ for charity clichés

  1. carolyne says:

    Agree and NEVER use service user – it’s cold, impersonal and does not paint a picture.Instead use people we support, young adults we work with, a young man who attends our centre or, at a push for trusts etc, I use ‘beneficiaries’. Don’t use clients either.

  2. Jane says:

    CASE STUDY is my pet hate – it’s not a case study, it’s a family’s story about something deeply personal and which very likely has changed them profoundly. The term ‘case study’ in my opinion belittles that.

  3. Adrian says:

    ‘Innovation’ is my pet hate. We are forced to dress up programmes that are known to be effective as innovative to please funders. It’s also seen as such a badge of honour that tried and tested programmes get overlooked in favour of the latest craze.

  4. Claire says:

    As a former journalist turned comms manager, I heartily agree with all you say. Though I would like to point out that our hard-to-reach rural communities would be hard to reach by bus 🙂
    Also, the Plain English link seems to take me to the Government UK style guide?

  5. Laura says:

    ‘Infrastructure’. Not even everyone within the sector understands this. It makes no sense. The ‘infrastructure’ of the voluntary sector is surely the many, many people and organisations who deliver services to er, service users, not just (if at all) the few that represent/support them. when I used to work for an ‘infrastructure’ body people thought I was involved in road building. Apparently we’re not allowed to say ‘umbrella body’ either though…

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      Would that be first tier or second tier infrastructure? I’ve worked for NCVO for 15 years and I still dont understand what those terms refer to…

  6. Aidan Warner Aidan Warner says:

    Thanks for pointing that out, Claire – should be fixed now.

  7. Addam says:


    As in: ‘Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation’. There are so many ways of expressing just how amazing and awesome your volunteers are, without resorting to this cliché that always seems to be used by CEOs who possibly don’t really know what volunteers do for the organisation.

    ‘Value added’

    It just makes people sound like a commodity.

    And the one that still keeps cropping up…’Using volunteers’

    We use things, not people!

  8. I’ve never understood whether in referring to businesses as ‘corporates’, charities are suggesting familiarity or fear. Why not just businesses?

  9. People seem to like acronyms loads in this business – NAVCA have a handy 10 page guide to important ones in the sector #bedtimereading

  10. Miranda Kemp says:

    Don’t say something’s inspiring when it’s not particularly… such a horrible catch-all word and terribly overused, in my humble opinion.

  11. Richard Caulfield says:

    Dare I add ‘Civil Society’ – using your own arguments, is that to say the rest of society is not civil? Does anyone really know what it means???

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      I reckon Mike Edwards had a pretty good stab at explaining why civil society is so useful in his book of the same title. Short article explaining here: But its not the sort of thing that would crop up in conversation with my mum.

  12. You could add “vulnerable” to overused to the point of meaninglessness

  13. Josh Hoole says:

    I heard a journalist say that every time he read the work ‘stakeholders’ he immediately thought of Buffy The Vampire Slayer!

  14. Jane says:

    Just seen in a reputable publication: “the sector has a lot of work to do to fully engage with the data agenda”. What does this mean?

  15. Peter Firth says:

    Here is a “Heads up”. The majority of “internal Stakeholders” never mind “External Stakeholders” in my “third Sector” organisation would not know what a “county wide infrastructure organisation” is, or that the charity is carrying out a “Mapping exercise” with a series of “Pop up events” leading to a “Development framework” to create “an Offer” to those in “Super output areas” . It is good to be part of an exclusive language club. It shows we know what we are talking about. We could be more exclusive, but even though the charitable sector tries hard, it cannot compete with the newly reformed Health sector on acronyms.

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      Acronyms! That’s a whole new blog. I really not like the overuse of acronyms. Especially TLAs 🙂

  16. MarkE says:

    My pet hate is “there’s no One Size Fits All Solution”. If anyone in the public or voluntary sectors has recommended a One Size Fits All solution to anything (since, just to pick a random election year, 1997) I haven’t heard about it.

  17. Juliet Leach says:

    I hate the term ‘engage’ in all its formats: “We are engaging our leaders..”; “The participants were paricularly engaged”; “This campaign engages the public on many levels…”.
    To me it’s a massively overused, lazy word – say what you mean, don’t use a ‘one size fits all’ word.

  18. Anne Layzell says:


  19. Tia says:

    There are quite a number that I think are over-used and/or misplaced. These are:

    “donor journey” and “upselling” -charities shouldn’t try to be puppet-masters of the people that support them! In my opinion, you don’t need elaborate strategies if you give a wonderful experience when people interact with you.

    “inject humanity into…” again, can’t we stop doing things TO people, and start doing things with them instead? As a supporter, maybe I don’t want you to go around injecting things?

    But in a similar vein, I also wanted to raise one that I don’t think is used enough: sincere. Genuine thanks, an honest plea. Unmanipulative.

  20. Paul Hipperson says:

    The imperative command “take action!” When what is really meant is “Give us some money!” or “Tell your friends to give us some money!” or “Raise money from somewhere and give it to us!” This is the new buzz word in schools and has replaced make a difference.

  21. Georgie says:

    “What’s the ‘ask’ here?”
    “It’s a call to action…”

  22. Carol McCall says:

    Where to start….”theory of change”, “participation”, “social return on investment” “close the listening gap” – (what does that even mean!!!)

  23. says:

    ‘Excited’ After 15yrs working in the voluntary sector I’ve been pleased, happy, troubled, concerned, delighted and so on and so on, but I can’t recall ever being ‘excited’, yet I’m forever being reminded that we’re undergoing some ‘very exciting times’. Are we? And ‘synergy’? Where did that spring from?

  24. “Virtual”
    The misuse of this word also hints at a false dualism of “virtual” and the “real”, but is normally (mis)used to make projects sound grander than they actually are, e.g:
    – virtual hospital
    – virtual marketplace
    – virtual community

    I think it’s misleading in the context which it is normally used – “digital” is descriptive, and accurate. Even then, we should put a “best before” date on this revised language – I’m not sure my 14-year-old cousin would necessarily distinguish between “digital” and…”physical”?!

  25. I can’t think of a word that has been more vandalised and stripped of its dignity than ‘social’ in recent years. Thankfully it has an intrinsic meaning of such beauty that it will outlast current fads.

    • Karl Wilding says:

      Matt – I disagree. The word you are looking for is Community. Or more commonly, The Community. What an old colleague of mine used to call a ‘spray on word’

      • Wish I’d thought of that one:) If I removed community from my historic output, it would look like that redacted-to-oblivion Iraq war dossier.

        My ‘social’ antipathy probably springs from the legions of commercial panhandlers that greet me whenever I turn on my email:)

  26. Silos. Where did they suddenly come from? Vital. No it isn’t. It’s just important.

  27. John Rockley says:

    RAISE AWARENESS hurts… as a journalist and as a media trainer, if I ever have to hear of a charity raising awareness again, I’ll eat my own blog and that is a post of why it’s a dreadful phrase.

    • Andrew Thompson says:

      I completely agree. Raise support or involvement, by all means, but awareness? Only the laziest communications professional would aim so low.

  28. This issue has been generating passionate engagement think pieces for quite a while – here’s one from 2009 on the KnowHow NonProfit forum (thanks Madeleine Sugden)

  29. Deborah Joffe says:

    How about ‘project’? We provide an ongoing service not something with a start and a finish. Oh yes, worst of all is ‘sustainable’ (by some miracle we will be self-funding) and of course ‘planned obsolescence’…

  30. Hazel Greig-Midlane says:

    Key – though this would have gone years ago, but it is still there. Used to mean important, essential, priority
    Diverse is beginning to bring out the hives, especially when alongside vibrant – just don’t!

  31. ian hale says:

    “the perfect storm” what does that mean?

  32. martin says:

    “Going Forward”
    An overused and totally meaningless phrase

  33. Ed says:

    “Hard-to-reach” has its place, and you may be able to get a bus there, but you don’t know where “there” is. We’re not alone in trying to help “service users” who are not currently in “the system” (or are “not-engaged”) including both those that have never “accessed services” and those who have previously but are now “disengaged” from them. There are a lot of people out there with various needs which have not been identified, and they are not looking for those services, or even aware of them. They are, quite frankly, hard-to-reach…

  34. Niamh Goggin says:

    Big Society Capital’s latest is “trust engine” – when the public worries that private investors are profiting from investment in the third sector, who you gonna call? Trust Engine!

  35. Gabe says:

    I wish people would stop using, “in no particular order” (as used by the author here). Then they invariably list items in a particular order. What they mean is in *random* order.

  36. Pingback: Problems of sector terms and jargon | VoluntaryNews

  37. Marilyn Keats says:

    Please, please, please don’t keep using the word ‘interface’ when what you actually mean is meet, or simply – talk.

  38. Catherine Maryon says:

    The word I dislike the most in welfare- or health-oriented mateiral is “meaningful.” It’s patronising and prescriptive and not focussed on the client/customer/service user/member/person. Who are we to say that this activity is meaningful and that one isn’t?