Nonprofits: Stop Using the Passive Voice

Right now, the feeling I hear most about is powerlessness. We feel powerless to end a deadly pandemic. We feel powerless to end police brutality. We feel powerless in comforting or supporting our Black friends and loved ones.

The world is big. The problems sometimes seem even bigger.

That’s because the issues we’re up against have power. And the people behind them have power. Too often, nonprofits worry about calling those people out.

We have no problem talking about the homelessness crisis, but not the politicians who refuse to increase funding to affordable housing. We have no problem talking about the climbing COVID-19 infections, but not the factories that refuse to provide adequate PPE.

One of the best ways we enable this is by deploying the passive voice. If you’re not familiar with the passive voice, here are some examples:

  • The ball was thrown.
  • The students were suspended.
  • She was eliminated from Top Chef.

A quick way to know if you or your organization are using passive voice is to check if you can add “by someone.” That way you know that the subject of the sentence is not the one doing the action.

Nonprofits do this for one of two reasons. One, they don’t want to take full credit for their work. Two, they don’t want to blame anyone for the problem they are trying to solve.

The first is a problem in nonprofit communications. But the second is a tool of an oppressive society and will be focus of this blog post.

When we refer to problems in the passive voice, we remove the agency of the perpetrators. We present the problem as an unfortunate situation that needs solving, sidestepping the obvious actor making it possible. This is especially present in recent coverage of the anti-police brutality protests sweeping the nation.

In both of these examples, people are taking these actions. There are powerful decision-makers who are saying whether or not it does happen. By using passive voice, you are removing power from the equation. Those people need to be held accountable, most of all by any organization that stands for justice.

Read through your communications materials. Are you naming the people responsible for the problems you are trying to solve? Or are you obfuscating the perpetrator to limit controversy?

The time has passed for nonprofits to be content with solving symptoms. We must speak truth to power and we must be honest with ourselves and our donors that there are people responsible. Those people deserve to be held accountable for their actions or lack thereof.

Words are inherently powerful. They carry meaning and emotion and electricity. Stand for what you believe in. Say what your nonprofit has achieved. Show me whom you’re fighting against.

Don’t use ambiguity to disarm your own words.

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