21 irritating jargon phrases, and new clichés you should replace them with


mallard-ducklings-938666_960_720Hi everyone. Thanks for buying NWB merchandise this past week (it pays for the hosting of this blog. And also grant-rejection tequila). Sorry if you’ve emailed me or left a voicemail, tweet, or Facebook message and never got a response from me. I am going to blame having a two-month-old. I’m pretty much in a constant state of hallucination. I’ll get back to you, but it may be a while, especially if these pterodactyls keep dropping 990 forms on me. Get away from me; you’re extinct!

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, like this article, and this great infographic. 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. In your wheelhouse. WTF is a wheelhouse? I’m too lazy to find out, and I think most people are too. If none of us know what a wheelhouse is, then why is stuff always in one? Replace with “In your junk drawer.” Everyone has a junk drawer, so that makes sense.
  4. 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. (Do NOT click on that link)
  5. Let’s put that in the parking lot. This one means to note something down to discuss later. Says one colleague, “No, let’s not. Let’s deal with it now, ya hack!” Replace it with, “Let’s write that into a grant proposal.” That makes it sound important, but we don’t have to deal with it for six months to a year.
  6. Too many things on my plate. Reminds me of Thanksgiving last year, when I helped myself to too much seitan-based fake turkey and tempeh “fakin,” a type of bacon substitute, you know how it is. Replace with, “I have a lot of gluten in my diet.”
  7. 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. E.g., “This is totally in my junk drawer, so I’ll call your landline after the meeting.”
  8. Bandwidth. This must come from the tech folks and refers to the speed and ability to process information. “I don’t have the bandwidth to tackle any new projects.” Replace with “Sticky dots.” E.g., “You want all the staff to get CPR training? That would be great, but we don’t have the sticky dots for that right now.”
  9. Pick your brain. Gross. Replace with “Siphon your hard-earned knowledge for free.” E.g, “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.”
  10. It is what it is. Yes. It sure is. That’s…very helpful of you to say. Replace with, “A rhino ain’t a wombat.” Or “a platypus ain’t a rhino.” Just compare two animals that are obviously different and use “ain’t” to sound cool. E.g., “We didn’t do so well at that open house, but I guess a weasel ain’t a seahorse.”
  11. 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.”
  12. Deep dive. It means to really focus on something and thoroughly explore or study it. It’s annoying. Let’s replace it with, “990.” E.g., “We need to 990 why attendance has been decreasing.”
  13. 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!”
  14. Disrupt. Please, I can’t handle any more “disruption.” Can we just stabilize things in the sector before we disrupt them? Says a colleague, “The head of AARP wrote a book called ‘Disrupting Aging.’ Do you know what truly disrupts aging? Death.” Let’s replace it with “Masticate.” It means to chew, the act of breaking something into small bits, and it’s fun to say: “If our organization is to remain relevant, we must masticate the ways we’ve been doing things.”
  15. 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?”
  16. The optics: How things are perceived; for example, “We could seat the Mayor next to our board president, but the optics won’t look good.” It grates on my nerves. Let’s replace it with “Kilimanjaro.” It sounds impressive to climb this famous and beautiful mountain. But you can get people called “porters” to carry your stuff up for you! Heck, you can buy chocolate and soda along the way. (Thanks, Cracked, for illuminating this). So, Kilimanjaro can refer to when things are not what they are perceived to be. E.g., “We could seat the Mayor next to our board president, but it won’t be Kilimanjaro to the media.”
  17. 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).
  18. Low-hanging fruit. For some reason, this leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It’s insulting and patronizing when referring to people. I once heard someone say, “English-speaking parents are our low-hanging fruit, so we’re recruiting them first.” Not nice. Let’s replace this with something better, like “Top layer of hummus.” g., “The top layer of our hummus should be to get a locking cabinet for our personnel files.”
  19. Ducks in a row. I kind of like this one, because ducklings are so cute. But it’s overused. We need a new cliché. Let’s replace it with, “Bunnies in a basket.” Aw, that’s equally cute!
  20. Open kimono. It means something like being open and transparent. I’ve heard this like twice now in the past month. Ew! Gross! And culturally inappropriate! Replace it with, “3-ring binder.” 3-ring binders are awesome, especially those with the clear covers that you can slip a cover page, back page, and even a spine into! “When it comes to our finances, we are pretty 3-ring binder.” See? Way less creepy. (Seriously, never use “open kimono” ever). Update: Apparently, one colleague thinks binder reminds him too much with “binders full of women,” which is a good point. So I’m changing this one to “Open kombucha.” Bottles of kombucha, a type of fermented tea, needs to be opened on occasion to breathe during the making so they don’t explode.
  21. 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.

There’s plenty more; we’ve barely peeled the butternut on this one. Add your ideas and new jargon in the comment section. And participate on twitter using #nonprofitjargon and #newnonprofitjargon. For more on this topic, see “Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean.” Now, if you will excuse me, someone needs my attention. I’m sorry, Your Holiness, but you get three sticky dots like everyone else!

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