Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact, Purpose-Driven Language

The number of volunteers mobilized.
Number of hours served.
Number of agency partners engaged.

These metrics will be familiar to anyone working in the voluntary sector who have had to report their activities. As you might discern from the use of italics, the nonprofit world communicates with a certain tone, which might not be doing volunteerism any favors. “Mobilized” sounds authoritarian, “served” sounds transactional, and “engaged” sounds soulless.

In her chapter “Purpose Driven Volunteer Impact” in the new book Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, nonprofit consultant Sue Carter Kahl says: “Language influences actions and can inadvertently narrow how we define impact. For example, it is common to talk about measuring impact. Unfortunately, measuring frames impact in terms of numbers only [which can be] poorly suited to illuminating the complexity of nonprofit work, which deals with humans and transformation.”

Words, therefore, are powerful tools—for good or bad—so is it wise to regularly rethink the ones we use?


Among a great many other disruptions, COVID-19 sparked what’s been dubbed The Great Resignation—a mass exodus of workers from employment following a sudden review of their life and work in the light of the pandemic. It is no passing fad, either. Surveys suggest that Americans (indeed, people all over the world) are ready at any time to quit their jobs if those jobs are no longer fulfilling. In short, we have become a more purpose-driven society.

However, the language we use as a sector has for too long reflected the demand from funders and advocates for statistical outputs. But this no longer serves the need for mission-driven outcomes. Indeed, even the terms “outputs” and “outcomes” are problematic: would everyone who’s interested in hearing about the work you do share your understanding of what this jargon means?

It’s more pressing than ever that organizations reflect on the language they use so that it matches potential volunteers’ sense of purpose, desire to make a difference, and longing to be part of a social group.


Here are a few questions to ask regarding the language of your volunteer program.

Is our language inclusive?

This question is harder than it appears because, sometimes, the language of inclusion can, in fact, be alienating. Take “intersectionality,” for example. While commonplace among nonprofit professionals, this word means very little to many people without a definition. Jargon is useful shorthand for many of us, but it can put off potential volunteers, so look out for it and find a work around, even if it means using longwinded phrases.

Also, weed out functional “funder speak.” Consider more emotive alternatives, such as replacing “mission” with “purpose” or “value” with “worth” or “measuring” with “capturing.”

Is our language specific?

Some common vocabulary is guilty of being too vague. Take “community,” for example. What community are you talking about, exactly? Using broad terms can be dehumanizing, especially when they relate to race, gender, and disability.

Is our language authentic?

This relates to both inclusivity and specificity in that it is about reflecting and respecting the language of the people you work with. How do your clients and beneficiaries talk about the issues affecting them? What vocabulary do they use? It might not always be appropriate vernacular, but it’s always beneficial to listen and, whenever possible, provide a platform for the voices from within the communities you work with, rather than superimposing the voice of your organization.

In conclusion, then, the topic of language does not solely pertain to volunteer programs; it should be addressed across the organization’s operations, from fundraising to service provision. Clear, consistent terminology and vocabulary will reassure staff, stakeholders, volunteers, and beneficiaries alike.

Jerome Tennille is a corporate responsibility and social impact strategist, and a co-editor of Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing. For more information, read Dr. Sue Carter Kahl’s chapter, “Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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