EMH Insights

The Trap of the Buzzword

One of the biggest challenges facing non-profit organizations today is the dichotomy between crafting a catchy pitch and running an impactful, multifaceted program.  Mission-driven organizations are typically trying to solve complex problems that require in-depth, specialized knowledge to address, but they need to be able to pitch their models to funders, partners, and the public in a succinct, digestible way.  Additionally, funders often organize their grants into specific categories, such as education, arts, or health, expecting non-profits to fit into one unambiguous box.  In reality, most successful organizations realize that issue areas are interrelated and build programs that are more holistic in nature.  Despite their multifaceted value propositions, non-profits are still expected to speak about their cause or mission in a way that is short, punchy, and on trend.  This oversimplification can seep in messaging, operations, and impact. This is the trap of the buzzword.

Because so much of what non-profits do is communicated through social media and grant requirements are very specific, non-profits often abbreviate their messaging to focus on a few popular key words.  Jordan Levy, the Chief External Relations Officer for the Ubuntu Education Fund, recently wrote an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review stating that “to fundraise effectively, nonprofits come up with accessible, digestible, emotive concepts that resonate with those who work outside the sector.”  At first glance this is seems like a great idea–the general public will become more aware of pressing issues and will (hopefully) be encouraged to donate or volunteer in support of the cause.  Some popular phrases are “youth leadership development,” and “community resource center.”  At first blush, these sound like great models that have the power to impact society positively.  But what do they mean?  And how do non-profits actually deliver these programs?

Levy continues, “…both the solution and the problem run the risk of becoming overly simplified into more buzzwords that pervade the philanthropic dialogue. Over time the partial solution becomes distorted, generalized, and touted as the next big thing.”  As non-profits distill their impact into keywords, their supporters no longer understand the complexity of the circumstances they are facing.  The phrase “youth leadership development,” for instance, does not explain the background or circumstances of the youth being served, what the program does specifically, or why youth need leadership training.

A recent example of the trap of the buzzword occurred when one of our non-profit clients decided to build out a full-fledged case management program to support their youth leadership development work. The organization operates under the principal that youth can’t become leaders in their community if their basic needs have not been met, and their mission reiterates this.  If a child is hungry, struggling in school, or does not have a safe place to sleep, they will not be able to take an active role in improving their community.  Though the organization had been providing health, education, and case management support for years unofficially, it had never been a formal part of their grant application or their programming.  However, when they decided to ask for funding for a full-time case manager, their core funders did not support this initiative because it didn’t fit into their “youth leadership development” focus.  Because the organization had to characterize itself in a very specific way, their funders fundamentally did not understand the incredible impact they were having on their participants and the holistic approach that they needed to use in order to build youth leaders.  Because funding is usually focused only on the specific, digestible causes, symptoms, rather than underlying (and interrelated) problems, tend to be addressed.  Though the organization continues to provide holistic support to their participants, they were not able to build out a formal case management program because funders were only willing to support them in their youth leadership development work.

So non-profits are trapped.  Buzzwords are important for getting funding and building awareness, but they also oversimplify issues and lead to mission creep.  So how do non-profits avoid the trap of the buzzword?  Showing how and why is the solution to the trap of the buzzword.

How to sell your organization’s true impact

There are a number of tools that go beyond the mission and pitch to distill both the impact an organization is making on its target population and the process it is using to do so.  Some of the most popular tools for showing how a non-profit works are theories of change and logic models.  These tools are used to map out the work that a non-profit does in a way that is digestible, but is more reflective of the big picture, which includes the large-scale problems being addressed and the long-term vision for the organization.  Recently, EMH was engaged by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to help them develop a new program.  We built a logic model as the “recipe” for the program to show funders, board members, potential partners, and other key stakeholders the what, how, and why of the program’s impact.  When distilled from a logic model, the short, catchy verbiage of what an organization does is more accurate and can be backed up with the how, the why, and the relevant metrics. Despite their funding challenges, the youth leadership development organization I mentioned earlier is committed to serving their youth in a formalized and comprehensive way.  We are working with the organization to build out a theory of change and logic models so that funders better understand how and why the case manager will be beneficial to the organization’s other work.  Hopefully, these tools will help the organization be funded for a case manager in the near future.

Building a solid foundation like this can prevent your organization from succumbing to the trap of the buzzword, especially when you back it up with impact metrics, which we discussed a few months ago.  Good impact metrics track back to the problems the organization is trying to solve and are directly related to the activities performed by the organization.  Any time you can back up the results of your programs with data, your organization will be more credible—and more attractive to funders.  Once the impact of a non-profit is designed and tracked, catchy phrases, infographics, and other ways to make the story of the organization more palatable can be employed in ways that are powerful and accurate, rather than clichéd buzzwords.


In reality, most non-profits are solving a multitude of complex problems in a targeted way within a multifaceted landscape.  Funders need to understand the myriad of factors that affect the non-profit’s work, rather than focusing on a series of compelling buzzwords.  And, as mission-driven organizations are compelled to distill their message into buzzwords, it is important that they do so in a way that accurately reflects what they do–with the logic and strategy behind them.  EMH has worked with a number of non-profit organizations including Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans and Café Reconcile.  We work with non-profits to help them build effective programs, analyze and understand their impact, and refine their value proposition in a way that avoids the trap of the buzzword.  If you’d like to learn more about our work with non-profit organizations, view our case studies or contact us.


-Katherine Robinson, EMH Consultant