Why Wording Matters



By Mary E. Costello © August 2007

Independent Consultant

Grant Writing & Program Development

Creative Edge Consulting




When I was in college at the Catholic University of America, I was lucky enough to have Mary J. Flynn, MSW, as my Social Work professor.  A hard-as-nails, stoic, no-nonsense clinician and Irish mother of seven, Mary remains, to this day, one of the people I called an “unknowing mentor.”


Although we lost Mary many years ago, hardly a week passes that I don’t think about her and all she introduced to my then-young mind.   I can vividly re-tell many of her amazing stories and when I speak about her, it is always with distinct reverence.  She was, without doubt, the embodiment of what a Social Worker should be. 


Other than the jaw-dropping perfection of her words when describing what she said to clients under certain circumstances, her unbreakable strength, and her endearing absent-mindedness, I remember clearly how stubborn she could be.  I think back on her teachings frequently, especially when I argue with my customers over their favored, albeit, ineffectual, program terminology.


Above all, Mary was adamant that women are not girls, men are not boys, young adults are not kids, etc. —along with a slew of other recurrent corrections that, at the time, may have seemed like nit-picking.  It wasn’t.  Incorporating this into my work, and advocacy, in particular, words are everything.


My education about the power of words continued throughout my early years as a Social Worker, particularly as relates to folks with disabilities.   It is still all too common for the general public to view and refer to adults with developmental disabilities as “kids” or “children.”  Equally inappropriate, many people will identify a group or person as “the disabled” or a “handicapped man.”


While subtle, this defines the person by their challenge rather than indicating this as only a part of their being.   Meanwhile, there is much more to all of us than a diagnosis, societal challenge, or being a recipient of a human services program.  Although labels cannot be fully avoided, watching our verbal and written communications is a matter of respect.  And, our choice of wording reflects on us as professionals.


In this day and age, I actually edited a document from a program founder that referred to her own niece as “deaf and dumb.”  I cringed over this phrase for a variety for reasons.  Not only is it an archaic reference—dating back to usage in probably the 50’s or 60’s, but it further suggests that this organization is probably not prepared to provide the type of residential services that progressive Maryland would expect.  (In fact, I just checked the origins of this phrase, and it was coined by Aristotle.)


Bottom line is… if your language indicates you are not up to task, people will not take you seriously.  It simply points out that you are inexperienced in a given field.  And, in direct correlation to what I do, I worry about helping an organization set up shop if I feel, as an advocate first, they can’t provide quality services and it in any way jeopardizes the well-being of the intended constituents.


With another group I work with, preliminary documents referred to their service recipients as “average Joe’s” and “the guys.” So, the question I ask you to ponder is just this—if you are competing for funding, are you a “Mom & Pop” or an organization that gains respectability by using professional verbiage?


Any non-profit group that feels they need to purposefully stray from traditionally accepted and accurate human services terms is opening themselves to a rude awakening.  The particular group I refer to even fought the use of the universally accepted words, “program” and “services.”


While they are making slow strides toward understanding the importance of semantics, their funding success or failure will rely, in part, on their language choices.  To want to “dumb-down” terminology because the founders are largely from the private sector and do not personally understand the meanings is a mistake.


A case in point is when the founder of this organization insisted that we not use the word “modality.”  He said no one would understand it. Yet, it is very common clinical term that is understood and respected in the non-profit realm.  In fact, it lends credibility—far more than average, lay-speak that constitutes no psychological or proven basis for programming. 


When you choose your words, choose them carefully.  You must incorporate them into your daily communications—both written and verbal.   Semantics matter, as a way to further illustrate your competence and ability to provide the services you aim to offer.


Consider the fact that every other group out there is competing with you for the little funds available.  Plainly stated, if their materials and program are better than yours, they win.  Professionalism is absolutely critical, and you must utilize words that highlight your capabilities and knowledge base.   If you are lacking in either, you are not ready to start a non-profit—or you need to hire someone qualified to fulfill the administrative role.


If you insist that you are not a “program,” do not provide “services,” and subscribe to concepts rather than a “modality” or “methodology”—your fundraising should consist of bake sales and car washes.  “Feel good,” informal or down-home neighborly talk is not good enough.  Funders support programs that are innovative, clinically sound, research-based, and strategically planned by capable administrators with relevant experience and professional credentials.


The old adage holds true—you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Your written materials are your vehicle to sustainability.  They paint a picture, elicit emotional response, instill confidence, and demonstrate the importance of your program.


As we say to children all the time... “Use your words.”






About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation.  Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.  She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope. Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to  Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time. 


Disclaimer:  Any submitted email questions from readers implies unrestricted authorization to use and/or reprint the content for articles and spotlight email responses on the Boys Project website and in all Creative Edge materials unless this permission is specifically denied in writing prior to printing or publishing.  Anonymity will be provided when requested or otherwise appropriate. Content used from audience email questions or any other means through this process provides no financial compensation whatsoever to the respective audience member.