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It’s not you. It’s us: why charities need to mind their pronouns

Howard Lake | 3 September 2013 | Blogs

One evening, a couple of years ago, I was watching a US celebrity news channel. Don’t judge me. I’d had a tiring day. I needed something mindless. I needed bright colours. Is that enough excuses?

Anyway, a film star who’d recently become a mother was interviewed on the red carpet and said something like: “When you become a mother, you don’t expect such strong emotions. It changes your life.”

And this irritated me a little, but I didn’t really know why at the time.


How to move from Fundraiser to CEO - by Bruce Tait. Upwards white arrow on blue background.

It became clearer to me some months later when I attended a course run by Leap Confronting Conflict, the fantastic charity I used to work for.

There, I learned two things in particular:

Talking about personal experiences in the 2nd person (“you”) rather than in the 1st (“I”) is all too easy to do, but it is less impactful, because it can sound like we’re not speaking about ourselves.

Especially in moments of potential conflict, speaking in the 1st person rather than the 2nd can be very effective. Better to say “I feel this” than “you don’t understand me” because it is indisputable.

So maybe this is why the celebrity’s maternal utterances jarred with me. Actually, no! That’s not how I feel! Speak about yourself!

It’s not me. It’s you.

And pronouns are equally important for charities. In 20 years in the sector, every organisation I’ve worked in has wrestled with its pronouns. Seriously.

We write about ourselves in the third person a lot (e.g. “The Red Cross does X”) but often veer inconsistently between singular and plural (e.g. “The RSPCA are the first on the scene when…”).

But then it’s not possible to stay in the third person for too long without appearing too dispassionate, so charities often move quickly to the 1st person plural (“We are the only charity that…”.

And why is using “we” so important? Well, it all comes back to mission again. Doesn’t everything?  In essence, charities make a difference through collective action. There’s more than one person involved. And using “we” makes what we say personal. As a result, the reader or listener is much more likely to want to become part of it. If our communication is driven by our own passions, our own motives, it’s going to sound more sincere and is much more likely to be effective. Can we presume to speak for our supporters? When they start to use the word “we” then half the battle is won.

So that’s why charities should mind their pronouns. They’re only little words, but they can make all the difference.

Remember: It’s not you. It’s us.

Richard Sved is Director at 3rd Sector Mission Control. First published on 3rd Sector Mission Control's website and republished here with permission.

Photo: by iQoncept on