Charity sector buzzwords: weird ways the charity sector uses language

Charity sector buzzwords: weird ways the charity sector uses language

Charities have developed a use of language all their own. Sometimes this is completely appropriate, but all too often the language uses a shorthand which only users in the know might find accessible. Charities can end up with language which donors, users or the public can find off-putting or confusing, or worse still, stop them trying to understand what a charity is talking about. I should make it clear these are terms and use of language that I dislike, and I know many staff at nfpSynergy would disagree with me. Indeed, they already have.

Lapsed donor

Fundraisers routinely talk about donors who haven’t given for a period of time as lapsed donors. It’s an odd use of terminology. The only other situation where we use the same type of language is about somebody being a ‘lapsed catholic’ (never a ‘lapsed protestant’ for some reason). Either way it’s a strange way to talk about supporters. Somebody makes a donation, maybe two and not again: but after that, the charity talks about them as if they had fallen from the true path of devotion. Thankfully the same language hasn’t spread to the word of dating, otherwise after one date somebody could be labelled a ‘lapsed fiancée’.

Lived Experience

Lived experience is a bit of jargon that has crept into the sector in the last few years. We get briefs asking us to research people with ‘lived experience’ of xyz condition. The bit I never understand is why ‘personal experience’ isn’t a good enough term (I did ask some folk from a disability charity this once and they said the two terms were interchangeable). However, I suspect to many donors, or even users, the term is a touch opaque. As a general principle nobody should ever use a more complex term when a simpler one will do.

Independent charity

I always know one thing for certain about any charity that calls itself an ‘independent charity’: they aren’t really an independent charity. They are hoping if they tell you often enough that they are independent then you won’t notice the huge wadge of cash they got from a funder (usually government). So next time you hear a charity called itself independent, ask yourself why they aren’t really.

Voluntary sector

The dictionary has two definitions of the word voluntary. The first is the one I think what people mean when they talk about the voluntary sector: ‘done, given, or acting of one's own free will’. The sector made up of people doing things of their own free will. The second definition is equally applicable but very different in its ramifications: ‘working, done, or maintained without payment’. The problem is that we are anything but a sector which is ‘maintained without payment’ when there are over 700,000 paid employees. It’s a poor and confusing use of language.

Voluntary and community sector

Are we the voluntary sector? Or the voluntary and community sector? Or the Third Sector? Or the Charity sector? Or independent civil society? Or the non-profit and voluntary sector? The list of permutations is endless. The problem is that if there are subtle differences in meaning, they are lost to all but the most hardcore sector academics. This lack of a clear definition and name for the sector means that the potential sense of coherence that comes from an agreed and widely used name is lost.


I am sure there are lots of great impact reports from charities. The problem is that every charity claims to have great impact and sorting out the blaggers from the genuine is not always easy. Many remind me of the essays I did at school where I hoped if I repeated a few buzzwords often enough, nobody would notice I knew nothing about the topic. Impact reports are the worst culprits for this: take an ordinary annual report and insert impact into every heading and picture caption and ‘hey presto’ an impact report is created. Is that a bit too cynical? Possibly, but I’ll have to create a theory of change for this blog before I can know one way or the other.

Positive Change

This charity sector special is just a tautology. A few campaign organisations talk about creating positive change. The problem is that nobody wants to create negative change, let alone have a slogan embodying their poor use of English. A ‘campaign for change’ is quite good enough.

[xxx] Justice

Food justice was the first use of the justice buzzword that really left me stumped as to whether any donor would have any idea what the NGO in question was talking about. Since then, I have seen more types of justices than GB’s Olympic gold medal haul: medical justice, disability justice, tax justice, health justice, environmental justice, food justice, and more. The problem is not that all these types of campaign are powerful and needed – of course they are. The issue is it’s a use of language that will leave the average supporter bewildered. It’s only the real hardcore charity folks who are turned on by everything being tagged with the J word.


It’s probably the oldest of the sectors buzzwords. Every international NGO wants to empower its partners (a candidate for another buzzword perhaps) and I always want to see it in every impact report when I am looking for a buzzword full house. It’s probably sufficiently well used now to be generally understood, and while of course empowerment is something that I really want charities to do, it’s still a buzzword. I feel empowered to say that.


Any contributions to the charities list (or should that be lexicon) of buzzwords do put comments below or on twitter

Submitted by Dave Massey (not verified) on 7 Oct 2021


Of course every area has its own buzzwords and language. The thing that I find is necessary is a translation dictionary between them - so as you engage between one area and another what one may call x another will call y. It can cause much frustration and confusion until someone realises that actually x=y.

Your point though Joe on confusion for the external audience is well made and something that is not considered nearly enough in the third sector / charity sector / civil society.

Submitted by Mike Allen (not verified) on 7 Oct 2021


Users/service users/clients/customers/beneficiaries/people-who-use-our-charity-for-their-support.
I dislike "clients" as it sounds too legally-based, many charities balk at "customers" and I genuinely have seen something very much like the last one...
I push the use of "beneficiaries" but it's a bit of a mouthful.

Submitted by John Palmer (not verified) on 8 Oct 2021


Surely “Driver of Ideas” is the ultimate job title buzzword?

I hope all is well with you Joe, be good to catch up sometime.


Submitted by Richard Semmens (not verified) on 8 Oct 2021


Lived experience = actually has the condition.

Personal experience = knows someone with the condition? (eg. as a parent, teacher, professional)

"Lived experience" suggests a stronger understanding, rather than someone who has seen and supported it.

Submitted by Dr Quentin Outram (not verified) on 8 Oct 2021


Hip hip hooray for this! Whenever I see language like this I see people who have stopped thinking and now live their lives on auto-pilot. Well done!

Submitted by Diana Maxwell (not verified) on 9 Oct 2021


There were some very recognisable expressions in the blog - impact report, tick! Less obvious perhaps is the use of the word 'about' for what a charity does. "We are about ..." which seems to tiptoe round the edges, instead of getting to grips with the subject of discussion/ problem. It puts responsibility for actions at one remove. Speaking from my 'lived experience' of having a proofreading/editing sideline, that is...

Submitted by Richard Chambers (not verified) on 11 Oct 2021


Good article.

"Impact" has certainly joined the Over-used Buzzwords Club. However, I do find "change" - or more accurately, "difference" - to be highly problematic. Pedantically speaking, both words are neutral without an adjective applied to them, and the phrase "making a difference" (on its own) has caused me to roll my eyes for more than a decade now.

Why don't we people of the voluntary/charity/third sector talk in terms of making lives/communities/the planet "better"; it's why we bother showing up isn't it... not just vague "change" for change's sake.

We are still far too apologetic in some of the ways we operate.

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