Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean


giraffes-627031_960_720Hi everyone, a colleague asked me to write a translation of nonprofit terminologies and concepts, which may be helpful to those who are thinking of going into nonprofit work. Since I was pressed for time this week (look, Narcos is not going to binge-watch itself on Netflix), I outsourced the task to the NWB Facebook Community, which is full of brilliant and hilarious people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Here are several of the suggestions, mainly copied verbatim. (Go to the Facebook page for the whole list). This is by no means comprehensive, so please add your own in the comment section:


Salary commensurate with experience: We’re ashamed to actually say what it is, but it’s probably nowhere near commensurate with your experience level

Comprehensive benefits: You can take home leftover crackers AND half-drunk bottles of wine after donor receptions.

Welcomes diversity/seeks diverse leadership: You will be the first and/or only person of color on our board/staff/whatever

A dynamic work environment: We are really disorganized

Able to prioritize: You’ll have to decide whether it’s riskier to delay payment on the electric bill or the water bill

There were so many duties we decided to split the job: Your predecessor still works here, but is angry she was demoted, and won’t train you

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

Lots of opportunity: It literally could not get any worse.

Looking for a self-directed individual: We don’t have enough staff to pull off this plan, so you’ll be on your own to get the stuff done we hire you for

Out of pocket expenses incurred will be reimbursed: We really have no approved budget line item for parking, mileage, postage, or approved meeting meals….

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

And other duties as requested: There is no janitor, you’ll be taking out your own trash. We received a capital grant for new carpeting and you need to move furniture. Can you make cookies for the board? Oh, are you done with that grant yet?

Flexible: You will need to change your own toilet paper rolls. Or bring your own toilet paper. Or donate toilet paper. Or bring your own toilet. Or go home to use the toilet. We often run out of toilet paper before the next supply run.

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

We are in an exciting period of transition: You won’t believe the frequency of turnover, and job descriptions change monthly,  or our executive director was just indicted for both embezzling AND harassment!

Must be proficient in Microsoft Office: We have people who aren’t proficient in Microsoft Office on staff

Computer skills required: You are now the IT department

Must be a self-starter: Expect zero training, support, or real buy-in from the organization on your project. And you must be able to raise your own salary.

Some evening and weekend work required: You’re attending all the committees and doing snack runs all the time.

We value professional development: We expect you to perform your usual work while staying on top of trends by attending relevant trainings, workshops, and conferences but there is actually no budget for said activities. And don’t plan to do that stuff on the clock.

Intricate set of group dynamics: There are pain-in-the-butt people you have to work with who refuse to learn a better way to work smarter

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

Team player: Never get credit for your work

Open concept office: We can’t afford more space than this one room and you will need to go to a nearby Starbucks for private meetings

This is a polite culture: Everyone here is passive aggressive

Good sense of humor: Understand that “boys will be boys,” and someone is going to cover your desk with aluminum foil at some point

Flexible work schedule: You may work whatever hours you like, as long as they add up to 60 hours per week

Work Culture

Breaking down silos:  Occasionally, people from different departments sit across from each other and see who’ll break first.

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

Can I give you some feedback?: You really screwed up

Let’s circle back: Shut up you guys and focus!

Conference call: 1 person speaking, everyone else on mute doing other work/checking Facebook

Let’s put that idea in the parking lot: That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard

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

Innovative evaluation: Survey monkey responses

Logic Model: Our work distilled into a one-page chart using 3-point font for Type-A individuals

Big picture thinking: Avoiding work that actually needs to be done, like picking up the phone to call donors.

Rebranding: Something we paid a marketing firm way too much to develop that won’t actually change anyone’s perceptions about our organization.

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

We’re going to use Big data: We’re gonna use the filters in Excel

Best practice: We read an article once

Community Engagement

Relationship building: Can hold your liquor

Inclusive: One time we asked someone in the lunch room what they thought about a project.

Community: Anyone who doesn’t work here

Community engagement: Conversations with 10 or more people who don’t work here.

Involved the community: We brought in a few people, gave them no training on the type of guidance we were seeking, and then talked about how useless it was to have them there after they left.

Community partnerships: Because we wanted that grant

We have long-standing relationships with many community partners: We did a one-time, limited-duration grant project with that agency once many years ago, but keep putting their names down as a community partner.

Strong network of community partners: We work with three orgs a lot

Equity: Something we just talk about

Letter of support: I write it and pretend to sound like you and your org, then you sign it


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

Our board of directors is engaged and empowered: Be ready for regular bouts of conflicting micro-management.

Engaged board: The board will micromanage all of the things that don’t matter, like which shade of grey the supply room should be painted, but will disappear when something important, like fundraising, needs to be done.

Executive Session: We’re gonna grill your ass without you in the room, then act like it was simply private protocol all along, but as conflict-avoiders we’re not aware of other options

Goal of increasing board engagement: We had 4 months straight without a quorum.

Annual meeting: Our bylaws make us do this every year, so let’s have a party!!!

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


Development plan: List of bake sales and people we plan to beg for money

Diverse revenue stream: We’ll take money from where ever we can get it

Must be able to innovate our fundraising:  We have no freaking idea beyond silent auctions and golf outings.

Friendraiser: Fundraiser that bombed

They’ve supported us for a long time: This donor is probably going to say something problematic or unintentionally racist to you; please just give them a pass this once.

We raised awareness: We raised NO money

Sustainability: A land of rainbows and unicorns


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

Sabbatical: Rehab

Grassroots organization/nonprofits in general: Place filled with people who care so darn much about making a difference that they knowingly take this job – with joy – understanding full well that all or most of the above comments are true.

If you like this post, read 21 time-saving tips for busy nonprofit professionals. And Nonprofit cocktail recipes

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53 thoughts on “Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean

  1. Dustin Wax

    Transparency: Doing what someone wants.

    Lack of transparency: Doing things other than what someone wants.

  2. Athayde Motta

    My favorite: “Welcomes diversity/seeks diverse leadership: You will be the first and/or only person of color on our board/staff/whatever”. So very true…

    1. verucaamish

      Or, you’ll get far in the interview process but we’ll give it to a white person anyway because of “cultural fit.”

  3. James Greene

    My comprehensive benefits package also includes making iced coffee with the left overs from the board meeting. I also get to take the hummus that is left after programs. That is kind of like my bonus, right?

    1. Andrea Sanchez

      Today we had left over beagles and a platter of strawberries and yogurt. As a college student interning full-time at a nonprofit (nonpaid internship BTW) and working retail after hours, this free food is god sent.

  4. Jane Garthson

    Part-time: Two thirds of your time will be unpaid because we know you love to volunteer.
    Grant-maker: Someone who lets us do whatever we want with their money once we get it and understands all our accountability reports are fiction.

  5. Katie Hop

    My favorites:
    1. Must be proficient in Microsoft Office: We have people who aren’t proficient in Microsoft Office on staff
    2. Computer skills required: You are now the IT department (This is my life)
    3. Friendraiser: Fundraiser that bombed
    4. Let’s put that idea in the parking lot: That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. (What it should really say is “your idea is ridiculous, but we want you to feel heard. Please know that after this meeting, we will cruelly mock everything you said.”)

  6. Katia Satterfield

    I enjoyed this, Vu. However, I worry it’s perpetuating our inferiority complex just a little?

  7. Tami Hart

    After spending most of my professional life in the corporate sector, I thought the corporate world had a lock on ridiculous terms/jargon….that was until I went to work for a nonprofit. Thanks for the definitions. Two years at my current nonprofit job and I’m still trying to figure out what the heck people are saying.

    1. Stacy Ashton

      I have a very long acronym list. I put it in Excel so I can sort alphabetically. This is very helpful for duplicate acronyms: same letters, same order, totally different programs.

  8. Fleur Larsen

    Culture of Gratitude: a self-congratulating martyr speech intended to garner pity.
    Self-care: I’m terrible at time management, want to save everyone and martyr myself all the time

  9. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    Self-motivator: Someone who gets out of bed in the morning with less than 5 instances of hitting the snooze button on the alarm.

  10. Xina Broussali

    This is fantastic! My favourites, from the land of “innovation-speak”):

    “Untethered thinking”: we all sit around a table with sketch pads, blurting out whatever comes to mind while trying to sound smarter than anything else. Then we all complain about how nice it would be if we had any $$ to tether these thoughts (Oh, and because no one actually takes any notes of any of the (good and not so good) ideas, they all end up in that big parking lot in the sky, evidently!)

    “Blue sky thinking”: see above.

    “Actioning”, “Visioning”, etc.: blech. See this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

    Thanks for the much-needed laugh, all (as much as the sobering reality check concerning many of these truths, of course, such as lack of diversity, lack of good working conditions, and the rest of it).

  11. Jedediah B Hotchkiss

    Why I no longer work in Non-Profits. I can’t drink leftover wine anymore. Spot on. However, at least the places I worked at always thought they were working less efficiently than the private sector, however, that is far far far far from the truth. I guess we just expect more from organizations with missions than we do companies with bottom lines. Still. I hear ya on the leftover humis.

  12. g myers

    missed getting something on the FB page last week..

    Part Time: you will get paid for 20 hours, with a 3 day a week schedule, but work 40 hours 5 days a week, and make sure you keep up with all your emails and voice mails from home.
    Full time: you will get paid for 40 hours, but work 60 hours every day of the week. Don’t forget to respond to your emails on Sundays.

  13. Diana Burrell

    Great one, Vu. Here’s another:
    Silent Auction: “Huge time suck for the one person development ‘team’ who’s time would be better spent getting donors to actually come to the event.”


  14. Lily Burnett

    Administrative Assistant: I want a personal assistant and Administrative Director rolled into one super human who will work for $12 an hour and get me coffee. Because I said so.

    1. Elizabeth McEwen

      Who is also the office tech person, database manager, volunteer coordinator, janitorial crew, Board babysitter, and temporarily takes on any other position’s duties whenever there is staff turnover.

  15. Claudine M Wessel

    Although funny, this is kind of depressing. I’m so glad I work for a large non-profit.

    1. Generic Reader

      Unfortunately, in my experience, the size of an NFP has no correlation to the scale of dysfunction…

  16. Pauline Urbano Hechler

    This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but I saw it and thought you could knit something meaningful while watching “Narcos.” Whoops! That’s a crotchet hook. You do crotchet, don’t you?

    1. LornaV

      Now Vu will have to make and sell these as part of a Enterprising NonProfit (social enterprise) venture called the Unicorn Store. Using all those lessons learned from the for-proft sector, so her non-profit can act more like a business. Brilliant!

  17. kathywertheim

    I would add:
    Creative: You can figure out how to work with computers that are held together with duct-tape.
    Risk-taker: You won’t report us for having stolen software.
    Funding collaborative partnerships: The foundation lost money in an up market so now we’re splitting the same dollars among multiple nonprofits.
    Working board: Doesn’t.
    Working board, version 2: Our board tells you how to do your job because you’re the first hire, to avoid having to fund raise.
    Working board, version 3: Only about one-third are really working, one third show up and that’s about it, and one third really need a gold watch and a handshake, and none of these people are contributing any money.

  18. Patronized

    You forgot one. Disappointing financial results: the Executive Director used donor money to fund a European river cruise.

  19. Kantchu Reed

    We embrace a culture of abundance: It’s the last quarter and we’ve raised 50% of our annual goal.

  20. Noits Notmyrealname

    I should so send this to the lunatic chair whose insanity I could no longer stand. But… it would go right over the head

  21. Cloggie

    I came back to this because am editing my current job description (which was 3 full pages!) for them to hire my replacement in the near future. Still not sure whether to laugh or cry at the list.

  22. Joe Ostrander

    Commonality: you are going to have to lose a little bit of yourself to fit in around here

    Passion: we all have to pretend that we are as excited/care about about the latest issue/idea brought up in the last staff meeting

  23. Emily Dollemore

    AmeriCorps VISTA: The unfortunate soul fresh out of college that we expect to save our asses in the space of 12 months

  24. ApocalypsoFacto

    “This donor relationship requires special handling and a lot of diplomacy” = “This donor is a creepy old married man who likes to hit on younger women and stare at their b00bs, and you’ll just have to put up with it because he gave us $20k last year. P.S., don’t you dare mention his hitting on you to his wife, who comes with him to events and is totally clueless.”


    “These donors are a married couple who hate each other, and they also really enjoy making nonprofit development people miserable. You’ll have to deal with one of them pledging X amount, and then the other person will renege on the pledge and promise a different amount, or promise nothing. And then you’ll end up in the middle of their vicious marital argument.”

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