Right Value, Wrong Place


Something happened to me in 2002 or 2003 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s foundational to our approach to fundraising.

I was part of a team serving a large, national charity you’ve likely heard of. They focus on hunger here in the US.

This organization did not like to use the word “hungry” to describe their beneficiaries. They preferred the phrase, “food insecure.”

The team I was a part of were pretty sure that asking a donor to “help a child that is food insecure” would raise less money than asking a donor to “help a child that is hungry.”

The organization allowed us to do a head-to-head test. The results came back and what we suspected was true: when the organization asked donors to help a child who is hungry (or “suffering from hunger” or something similar) they raised more money. And when they asked donors to help a child who is food insecure (or “suffering from food insecurity” or something similar) they raised less money.

The results of the test were shared with the higher-ups at the organization. The ruling came back:

“We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity.’ It’s more accurate. Please continue to use ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was outraged at the time. This organization was making a choice that they knew would cause them to raise less money and help fewer people! (I was also pretty young and hadn’t yet experienced that things like this happen all the time.)

Looking back, my impression is that their decision seemed to be driven by two ideas:

  1. They valued sounding professional
  2. They valued being perfectly accurate

While I agree in principle with both of those values, I’ve come to see how much those values applied in the wrong places can cause an organization to raise less and do less than it could.

On Sounding Professional

The most successful fundraising organizations concern themselves with writing and talking in a way that their donors can quickly understand. They value being understood by the audience more than they value sounding professional.

And the most successful organizations differentiate between audiences. They sound professional when they are talking to other professionals, like partner organizations, foundations, etc. And when communicating to individual donors (who aren’t professionals!) organizations make the generous choice to speak in the donor’s language, not professional language.

On Being Perfectly Accurate

The most successful fundraising organizations tell stories and use language that is representative, not perfect. They know that being perfectly accurate is for experts and professionals – and they know that individual donors are not experts or professionals.

It’s true that “food insecurity” is a more accurate description of a host of scenarios that describe the families this organization helps. It’s also true that “hungry” is an accurate description of one of the most common scenarios that describes the families that this organization helps.

“Hungry” is perfectly legitimate. It’s just not as complete as the organization’s experts would like to be.

Their insistence on accuracy over understandability cost them revenue and impact.

Interesting sidenote to writers: the “hungry vs. food insecurity” conflict is an example of the weird instances when being more accurate can make a piece of communication less clear.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

At Better Fundraising we help organizations see how positive organizational values like “sounding professional” and “accuracy” can accidentally cause them to create fundraising that’s exclusive.

And we work with them to make their fundraising more inclusive.

When an organization makes its fundraising more inclusive it’s often an uncomfortable process. You have to say things differently than you’re used to. You have to say different things altogether. You even format your communications differently!

But when organizations keep their beneficiaries in mind, it’s not a particularly hard process. And it’s incredibly rewarding when more money starts coming in, from a more inclusive group of donors, and more good gets done.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

4 comments on “Right Value, Wrong Place

  1. In my experience, the myopic drive of fundraising can have an impact this post does not address. The difference between using a phrase like “food insecure” vs “hungry” is also a matter of how an organization affirms the dignity of the people they are trying to serve. While a word like, “hungry” comes with an emotional or sentimental weight for the potential donor, it also comes with a description of the beneficiary that makes them sound helpless or having a lack of agency that proves to be disrespectful in the long run. It is never okay to let marketing descriptor take precedent over the way a beneficiary is presented. Dignity first… always.

    Secondly, the need to dumb down messaging for a demographic is a byproduct of paternalistic approaches to relief and development. It echos the old methods of putting the donor at the center rather than the beneficiary. It perpetuates an ideology that makes the donor the hero rather than the person working to find a solution for their own family and community. It feels good to give and get the dopamine hit… it is, however, a problematic approach to fundraising and engagement with people in the throes of poverty and health disparity.

    Just a word of caution. Thanks for writing.

  2. That’s an interesting read, thanks for the blog post. I came here from Jeff Brooks’ Future Fundraising Now email to read the conclusion. I would have written exactly the same as Dan Haseltine in the comment above – dignity first. That is also my number one guiding principle.

    In addition to that, in an international context, “food insecure” can also have a very specific political meaning that signifies a specific, technically defined set of circumstances or a specific situation which cannot be altered. I believe in your case the organisation was US-based with US-based operations, so that might not apply (I don’t know), but on an international level there are key terms that denote specific levels of intervention that need to be adhered to. “Food insecurity” possibly is one of those.

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