The Impact of "Impact" on Your, er, Impact

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It seems that every week we hear renewed rumblings within the nonprofit sector of the dangers of using the word “impact” in fundraising and marketing communications. In fact, resentment for the word has grown to the point that some clients I work with admonish its very mention in conversation and chastise those who dare let it slip.

I don’t know whether all of this angst is warranted, but I do agree that there is some cause for concern.

The real problem isn’t the word itself, of course. One quick run through your thesaurus will tell you that there are few alternatives that so succinctly convey a similar meaning, at least in the way it’s intended in nonprofit circles. However, its incorrect and excessive use has rendered it an industry buzzword of the highest order.

So what’s the big deal?

If used incorrectly, buzzwords can have a profoundly negative effect on your communications and, in turn, your ability to build trust and win/maintain your audience’s attention.

The use of a buzzword in fundraising communications isn't always a bad thing as long as it's used in moderation and, most importantly, in context.

The problem with the word “impact,” however, is that too many organizations have used it as a stand-in for actual results. Rather than measuring and reporting on how their activities and accomplishments have actually affected positive change toward their particular cause or issue, organizations have attempted to let the word stand in proxy as a vague inference of unidentified but assured progress.

Why do organizations do this?

Measuring impact is extremely difficult and time consuming. So much so that the vast majority of organizations don’t ever attempt to do so. Most have no idea where to start. But they’ve been told for years that donors want to know how their investments are being used to make a difference—a.k.a. their “impact” on the cause or issue.

Desperate to respond to the cry for donor ROI, and rather than invest the time and energy in figuring out how to report on real results, they list activities and statistics then slap the label “impact” on them hoping that will suffice.

But can it do any real harm?

Earlier in this post I offered that the use of buzzwords isn’t always so bad. An example: using jargon that helps an audience feel more connected because the term is something that only the select group of "in-the-know" individuals understand. But this isn't really the case with “impact.”

With so few nonprofits offering legitimate examples of their progress, donors are left to make the best of what’s offered. As a result, organizations incorrectly interpret donor tolerance as acceptance, yet wonder why their donor attrition rate is so high.

I’m not suggesting that use of the word “impact” is solely to blame for high rates of donor attrition, but offering no clear explanation for how the organization uses donated funds to achieve marked progress certainly isn’t helping.

Another problem is that some nonprofits, themselves, are fooled into believing that donors won't notice and, therefore, measuring their relative progress isn’t that important.

There may be some who feel that any progress is good, as long as there’s progress. But if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to accomplish, or the path you will take to get there, how will you know you’re making the right progress and having any impact at all?

Next Steps

If you practice thoughtful fundraising and marketing, you’re already aware of the value of reporting on your work in terms of progress toward achieving top-level organizational goals. If so, you’re probably only using the word “impact” when referencing relative accomplishments, if at all.

If not, it’s probably a good idea to avoid using the “I” word altogether.