As with all sectors, the development space has its own special jargon. Here are some familiar ones that drive us crazy. And a few suggestions for what their cooler-sounding replacements should be.

Let’s talk about jargon. We have so many clichéd phrases and concepts in our sector. Many of them we’ve adopted from the for-profit sector; and some of them, we invented.

More people are talking about jargon and how to avoid them. But no one offers alternatives to jargon. And it is my philosophy to never offer a critique without offering potential solutions, unless I’m lazy.

So I made up new jargon that you can use as alternatives. Try them out. Hopefully, these new clichés will catch on so that we can make charts to complain about them later:

1. 30,000-feet view/level.
Sometimes it’s 50,000-feet. You actually can’t see much from 50,000 feet, because you’re probably dead from hypothermia. Unless you’re in a plane, in which case all you see is clouds. So this metaphor is stupid. Replace with ‘The drone-camera view/level.’

2. Move the needle.
Unless your nonprofit is a drug prevention or intervention group and you’re literally moving needles, avoid this. Replace with, ‘Peel the butternut.’  Butternut squash is notoriously difficult to peel. “We’ve worked on homelessness for ten years, and we’ve barely peeled the butternut!”

3. Elephant in the room.
Refers to a huge issue no one wants to talk about. It gives elephants a bad name, and they are intelligent, magnificent, and compassionate creatures. Replace with, ‘Can we acknowledge the mites on our eyelashes?‘ Apparently, we all have microscopic insects on our faces, and no one talks about them.

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4. Take this off line.
Another export from the tech sector. It means “Talk about this in private later.” Replace with, ‘Call your/my landline.‘ No one knows what a landline is anymore, so we might as well recycle this word.

5. Pick your brain.
Gross. Replace with ‘Siphon your hard-earned knowledge for free.’ Eg, “I know you don’t have a lot of sticky dots, but I’d love to get coffee and siphon your hard-earned knowledge for free.”

6. Do more with less.
An oft-heard expression in our sector, and terrible because it perpetuates the martyr mindset. Replace with, ‘burn out.‘ E.g., “We lost 20% of our funds, and the waitlist for our services just doubled, so I guess we have no choice but to burn out.”

7. Innovative.
Ugh. This is often a catch-all excuse for chasing shiny new things. You know what is really innovative? General operating funds. So let’s replace “innovative” with ‘gen-op‘ E.g., “Dude, your organization’s program is totally gen-op!”

8. Value-add.
I can’t stand this one. “What’s the value-add of this program for the community?” Blegh. Sounds so annoying and pretentious. Replace it with, ‘Salt on the caramel.’  Salted caramel is now a flavor of everything: ice cream, chocolate, sauerkraut. It’s also pretentious, but we might as well incorporate it into our work conversations. “You want to have a golf tournament? What’s the salt on that caramel?”

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9. Empower.
One of the most overused words in our sector. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s lost power and meaning. Let’s replace it with something cooler: ‘Transmogrify.’ E.g., “Our mission is to transmogrify parents to advocate for their kids’ education.” (Yup, it’s from Calvin and Hobbes, the best comic ever written in the history of this universe and all parallel ones).

10. Think outside the box.
Such a cliché. We need something new. Replace it with, ‘Let’s think like a pterodactyl.’ You may be thinking, “That makes no sense.” Well, that’s because you’re not thinking like a pterodactyl.

Read the complete list on NonprofitAF here.

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Nonprofit work is stressful. But it is fun, and there's tons of humour to mine from it. explores what it is like to work in nonprofit, including fundraising, working with donors, special events, community engagement, donor cultivation, program implementation, outcomes and metrics, who should staff the board, when staff are bored, bored board, board-staff relations, and unicorns.


  1. Humour apart , we should replace some of the jargon that has become fatigued and irrelevant. Leveraging funds. Capacity-building. Community-driven action. Enabling populations. Collaboration. Participatory action. Anti-oppression. These are just some examples of a multitude of terms regularly thrown around by professionals in the nonprofit sector. These buzzwords can be reasonably categorized as industry speak, or just plain old jargon. We should not hide behind jargon and high-sounding phrases if they are not true. The least we can do is examine the vocabulary we use and seek to speak plainly and honestly.

  2. Ajit Kanitkar Reply

    Touchbase!!! expect a grant application when someone after fifteen years locates is money honey!

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