Using the word 'charity' can deter potential service users, research indicates

Charities should carefully consider the language they use when communicating with potential service users to avoid putting them off, according to new research.

A paper from the Association of Charitable Organisations says research it conducted with members found that “complicated and archaic language” commonly used in the voluntary sector can create barriers for people approaching benevolent charities for support.

It says a survey of 37 of its member organisations showed that the words “charity”, “beneficiary” and “benevolent fund” were potentially problematic.

“When the language used by charities is archaic, or 'old-school philanthropic language', as one respondent put it, it can act as a barrier to individuals finding charities accessible and approachable, leading to a feeling that a charity might be out of touch with the problems of ordinary individuals and not sympathetic, and contribute to the problem of stigma,” the report says.

It also says that some participants in the survey raised concerns that using the word “charity” could create a misconception that talking to a charity would cost them money and they would be asked for a donation or to give something back.

“The word ‘charity’ could also lead to negative connotations and someone not wanting to approach a fund due to being seen as a ‘charity case’ – which conjures up negative images of begging/handouts which could contribute to a loss of self-esteem,” it says.

But the report says these terms can be useful when talking to funders, the press or other partners to describe the work the charity does.

The report advises using jargon-free language to communicate with people who might choose to use a charity’s services.

“Charities suggested clear, non-judgemental and jargon-free language used in all communications with potential beneficiaries was important to encourage those that might be hesitant in approaching charities to come forward,” it says.

The report says anonymising the process for people applying and accessing support can help those who feel ashamed at the notion of approaching charities for help.

It also says simplifying any application process to help people receive support more quickly can reduce potential barriers for applicants.

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