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How Exploitive Language Is Hurting Your Grant Proposals

This article first appeared in the Giving USA blog.

This past year revealed many challenges surrounding race, equity, and diversity. These challenges gave us an opportunity to take a step back and ask important questions: Who am I? Where do I fit in this changed world? How can I use my unique experiences and talents to make the world better?

These are questions that span beyond our personal lives. The work we do reflects the ideals we hold. If we do not dedicate ourselves to remedying social issues within the context of our work, do we truly have the ability to commit ourselves to these ideals outside of the workplace? So at Grants Plus we asked ourselves: What can we do? How can we join these important conversations and have a seat at the table?

It was by asking these questions that we recognized we each have the opportunity to make decisions about the language we use. As grant writers specifically, we have the privilege and obligation to use language that empowers and supports the communities and groups we serve. 

Language is our contribution to creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

Below are five suggestions to deploy equitable language in your grant proposals and other organizational materials.

Tip #1: Use specific terms rather than vague euphemisms

Society has a whole tends to lean on euphemisms such as “at-risk” or “underserved.” While used with good intentions, these labels can obscure and weaken our message. On the other hand, being specific in our language provides clarity. For example, saying that “the majority of our students are Black and Latinx,” if that’s the case, is more accurate, direct, and descriptive than using a catch-all label such as “underrepresented.”

Tip #2: Don’t use an adjective in the place of a person

A crucial step to equitable writing is separating the person from the condition they are experiencing. If we use an adjective (such as “homeless”) in place of a person, we imply that a person is the condition that our organization is trying to remedy. Instead, we must keep our language people-focused (“a person experiencing homelessness”) which acknowledges that they are an individual whose identity is separate from their current circumstance.

Tip #3: Allow people to define and describe themselves

When we write, we must be respectful of the terms and descriptions chosen by different community groups. For example, in the autism community you might describe “autistic people and people with autism” based on varying preferences within that group. The best way to discover what terms and descriptions should be used is to actively engage with and listen to the people within those communities.

Tip #4: Address systems, not just symptoms

If we talk only about symptoms (“chronic high school dropout rates”) and not their underlying systemic causes (“educational barriers prevalent in Black neighborhoods”) we miss the opportunity to provide a comprehensive, compelling, and complete look at the problem our organization aims to address. Talking about both symptoms and systems helps readers determine which elements of the circumstance are within the individual’s control versus which elements are controlled by systemic issues we must correct as a society.

Tip #5: Move farther along the spectrum from “exploitive” to “empowered”

As writers, we have the privilege to choose the language we use. We can use language that denies agency and oversimplifies a condition (“these poor, at-risk children”) or we can actively seek to use language that denotes respect and dignity, and provokes readers to address crucial societal challenges (“capable children who deserve to learn, but who face multiple obstacles”). By using specific language that acknowledges systems as well as symptoms, we can elicit empathy from our readers, and further empower the groups we aim to serve.


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