May 12, 2017

Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean

Every industry has its own jargon, and the development sector is no different. In fact, we go a step further: we speak in code. NonprofitAF has put together a handy guide to help us read between the lines.

2 min read
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People new to our sector are often befuddled by the language we speak. Which is not surprising, considering our words often seem to say more–or less—than we mean. Take for instance phrases such as ‘looking for someone passionate about the field’, which we all know really means ‘applicants should be willing to accept being paid peanuts’. A cheat sheet of sorts can help newcomers wade through this maze of words, meaning and intent.

One of our favourite nonprofit blogs, NonprofitAF, has put together a handy list that demystifies nonprofit terms and concepts. Here are the ones that we loved the most.


A dynamic work environment: We are really disorganized. 

We are embarking on a new phase: Everything else we’ve tried has been an epic failure, and you will now save us.

A fast-paced environment: We are overwhelmed, overworked and afflicted with this curse called a ‘vocation’, and the Board just keep piling it on.

Looking for someone passionate about the field: Applicants should be willing to accept being paid peanuts.

Fast-paced, multi-tasker: We have too much work and not enough staff. Be prepared to do everything yesterday.

Likes to wear many hats: This is actually 3 positions, but we only have budget for one, and you’ll likely have to do strange things you may not be qualified to do.

Exciting: Terrifyingly out of control.

Computer skills required: You are now the IT department. 

Collaborative working environment: We have meetings every minute of every day.

Work Culture

Leadership opportunity: A challenging project we are going to talk you into doing (without you realizing it) that is in addition to and mostly unrelated to your actual job responsibilities.

We transitioned him/her to a new role: We don’t have the balls to fire anyone, ever.

Can you help me with some numbers for this grant report? If you don’t drop everything right now and invent numbers for tracking you never did, we will have to close down.

So-and-so is a visionary leader: So-and-so sucks at details and drops the ball a lot.

Related article: Jargon-ing your way through life 

Org Capacity

Strategic planning: We’re gonna make some stuff up about how the next 5-10 years are going to shake down. Then, we’re going to do something totally different within 6 months of the plan.

Strategic plan: A really expensive binder on a shelf that can occasionally be used as a doorstop.

Compliance: A quarterly exercise where we fill in an excel dashboard with numbers we’re not entirely sure of, but meet the benchmarks.

Best practice: We read an article once.


He brings considerable private sector experience: He worked at Microsoft and we’re easily impressed.

Board meeting packet: Something we spend 12 hours preparing, that 0 to 2 board members will read.


Thought leader: A leader among thoughts. When referring to self, marks an irritating, pretentious person/org.

Innovative: We’re trying to sound edgy and disruptive.

Disruptive: We’re trying to sound edgy and innovative.


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. Nonprofitaf 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.