Inclusive Gender Language – What Still Needs Fixing

US culture today is finally shifting away from language that assumes maleness as the norm, but in some places it isn’t shifting enough, and in some places I believe it is shifting in ways that continues to denigrate both the feminine and non-human animals.


Where It Isn’t Shifting Enough

A common convention outside progressive circles is to write “he or she” or “his/hers” when talking about a single person of any gender. This doesn’t go far enough because it still puts the male first, and it does not acknowledge non-binary people. This male primacy has been so ingrained that when I worked as a textbook editor over a decade ago, the companies whose job it was simply to reprint pages with my edits incorporated actually disobeyed my instructions and consistently printed “he or she” when I wrote “she or he.” I couldn’t make even that small change from inside the system – let alone add nonbinary people – even when technically I should have had the power to do so.


An Argument in Favor of They

When I was younger, my first reaction to they as a singular was that it was too grammatically awkward, since it goes with plural verbs, and I wished that ze or something like it had become popular instead. I was converted when I found out the history, however. Originally, they was either singular or plural, like you, which also uses plural verbs even when singular. They was historically used for a single person of indeterminate gender until the 1950s, when grammar rules were changed to speak of any indeterminate individual as male. By using they now when talking about a person of indeterminate or unknown gender, we are just going back to its historical use, and it makes sense from there to also use it for a person who does not identify as either a woman or a man… and when writing both, as I just did, I believe it is best to rebalance the scales by putting the feminine first.


An Argument Against It

A convention I passionately dislike is using it to describe non-human animals whose sex is unknown… or even whose sex is known. Even if we do not know an animal’s sex, we know for sure that the animal is a living being, not an object. Calling animals it supports the objectification and abuse of nature, whereas speaking of them as living beings like ourselves helps shift culture toward also treating them that way. If you don’t know an animal’s sex, I would encourage you to call the animal they – or she. I believe after such a long time of assuming maleness and all the damage it has done, assuming femaleness can be both refreshing and healing to individuals and to our culture. It helps rebalance the scales. And it is far better to mistake the sex of another animal than to treat her like an object.


Let’s Not Throw Away the Feminine Again

I am all in favor of trans inclusivity … I am concerned when it is done in a way that throws out the feminine. For example, I have seen people working with incarcerated pregnant women and mothers and not wanting to use feminine words, even though the actual individuals in question all identified as women and felt that the carceral system was taking away their womanhood and motherhood, which they valued. Yes, it is always possible that some do not fully identify as women and do not feel safe saying so in jail, but that does not mean we should throw away feminine words. If we jump right from treating the masculine as superior to throwing away all gendered language, we are throwing away the feminine for two different reasons. For many people femininity is positive, and for many it is negative only because their definition of it stems from patriarchy’s warped, denigrated versions of the feminine and masculine. I believe our language needs to honor the full spectrum, especially what has been denigrated – both the feminine and trans or nonbinary. An example is to describe a population as “trans and cisgender women and nonbinary people.” For inclusivity that honors all, we must continue to include both feminine and trans/nonbinary language, and I believe this is far more important than avoiding the grammatical awkwardness of lengthy terms.

We are Not Islands – the Importance of Describing Life Context

If you aren’t careful in your writing, most American readers will read it through the lens of our individualistic culture, the over-simplified paradigm that individuals alone are responsible for what we make of our lives. This predominant paradigm doesn’t take into account the social systems that give some people fewer choices, resources, and opportunities, as well as more risks, barriers to success, stress, health issues, and trauma.

People from oppressed groups are far more likely to have grown up aware of the truth – that people’s lives are shaped by how other people and social systems treat them, by what choices this context and their natures give them in response, and only then by what choices they make. Still, chances are that your readers will have the individualistic view to some degree programmed into their thinking by our culture, even if they have been working to reprogram it in themselves, and especially if they have had access to privilege. It is therefore important for mission-based writing to explicitly describe the systems that shape people’s lives. In addition to helping organizations address the barriers caused by these systems, this makes a critical difference to readers in the following three ways:

1. It Helps Shift Culture to Address Systemic Injustice

One of the first steps for addressing systemic injustice is to get it out in the open and develop a culture where we all explicitly acknowledge and talk about it. That means making a regular practice of intentionally countering the dominant individualistic paradigm. The more of us do this, and the more often we do it, the more thoroughly we will reprogram our own thinking, help others reprogram theirs, and influence others to continue explicitly contextualizing people’s lives within systems of oppression or privilege. Helping to make this thinking common practice helps shift US culture to a more accurate view that factors in both what is in an individual’s control and what is not. This culture change is necessary for both addressing the harms of injustice and ultimately eliminating it, and we are all responsible for being part of this change.

2. It Helps Shift Culture to Stop Blaming People for the Impacts of their Oppression

Describing life context fosters compassion by enabling people to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and not judge them. For example, many people would judge a woman described as a high school dropout who has not been able to hold down a job, has three children by three different men who are not helping at all, and is struggling to get by on Welfare. But what if they knew that her mother struggled with addiction and due to racial bias, was sent to jail instead of rehab, and she was placed in foster care, where she was never left in the same place more than a few months before being moved again, so she developed a “tough girl” persona, and her life was peppered with racist microaggressions from foster parents, teachers, and social workers who didn’t think she’d amount to much? It’s no surprise then that she wasn’t motivated in school, and her need to be accepted, coupled with her lack of access to birth control, led to pregnancy by the age of 14. Stories like this are not uncommon, and once we unpack all the oppression so many people are up against, we can eradicate the trend of blaming them and instead admire their resilience, offer them support, and work to change the systems that are truly to blame for their situations.

3. It Portrays the Context and Impact of Your Work

Showing what the people you work with are up against makes the importance and difficulty of your work crystal clear, and it shows how deeply people can improve their lives by participating in your programming, or what a deep difference the systemic changes you strive for or achieve will make.

This draws donors and funders to support you and makes constituents feel more comfortable receiving your help, since they know you won’t blame them or look down on them in pity. It also helps donors and funders adjust their expectations. For instance, it could show them that if you are working with people struggling for survival amidst oppression, you cannot be expected to quickly solve all of their problems or mold them all into organizing leaders – but what you can do is invaluable.

Stand Out Amongst Similar Groups –
Without Making Them Look Bad

You want to show how positively your work stands out among similar groups, but it can be hard to do that without making someone else look bad. It can seem like you have to choose between saying something negative about another, or avoiding the real truth and not getting to show something positive about your organization. Revealing this positive aspect of your organization might make all the difference in getting the clients, customers, participants, donations, or grants you are seeking. It may be absolutely necessary to describe how you compare favorably with others, so your reader knows to choose you amongst all of the options. Yet if you make someone else look bad, then instead of readers seeing your excellence in comparison, they might just see you as having a negative attitude, at best, or as downright vain, gossipy, and mean, at worst. So how do you make yourself look good without making anyone else look bad?

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How to Write About People Who Don’t Share Your Values

If part of your work involves dealing with people who oppose the values of your mission, it can be difficult to talk about them without implying judgment of them and their choices and behaviors that you strongly feel to be wrong. Yet, allowing those judgments to show can cause problems. Here are some thoughts and tips for addressing this tricky topic.

Let’s start with a fictional example:

sad faceArea business owners generally do not want to hire and make concessions for people with disabilities, so staff from The Strong Disabled try to change their minds with free consultation and research about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

This paints the business owners as selfish, uncompassionate, and even prejudiced… which some of them might actually be. Yet, describing them this way could earn their distrust or even animosity if they ever found out. Even if you can be certain they will never know, this description does not serve the nonprofit in the reader’s eyes either, for it does not give the reader confidence that the nonprofit can understand and persuade these business owners. In fact, the business owners just sound like bad people, and readers may feel that people with disabilities are better off without the possibility of having to work for such employers.


So what is the solution?

Even if you believe someone’s thinking to be absolutely wrong, you can still write in a way that shows compassion for the reasons behind their thinking.

Here are two fictional examples:

happy faceMany area business owners fear that they cannot afford to make the concessions needed to hire people with disabilities. The Strong Disabled eases their fears by offering researched data about the economic benefits of hiring people with disabilities and providing free consultation on cost-efficient ways create a disability-friendly workplace, including how to obtain funding for the process.

happy faceMany area business owners have absorbed cultural notions of what people with disabilities can and cannot do, leading them to believe that hiring people with disabilities would not benefit their businesses. The Strong Disabled corrects these misperceptions with free consultation and research about the many excellent benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

What may seem at first like unconscionable selfishness or prejudice can actually be seen and addressed as issues like fear and misinformation. If the business owners saw these examples, they would likely feel heard and understood and would not take offense. This way of addressing the problem also shows readers that the business owners are not just innately bad people, but people like anyone else, who can make misinformed decisions, then correct those mistakes. It also gives the reader confidence that the nonprofit understands how the business owners think and how to meet them where they are and give them the guidance and tools they need to learn and grow.

There may certainly be times when you do want to make someone else look bad, like when you are calling out a government for human rights abuse or a policy advocacy group for promoting a bill that would harm the poor to help the rich get richer. However, it is generally important to avoid saying anything negative about those you are working with or alongside. Fortunately, it is possible to express your values while also expressing compassion for and understanding of people whose actions go against those values.

Writing with Confidence that’s Contagious to Your Reader

How confident should mission-based writing be? You need to make your reader feel confident in your work and in you, even when you may be writing about things you are unsure of, like what you can do with funding you’re not at all sure you will be awarded. How do you balance your fear of over-promising with the need to promise enough to entice participation and support? Does it sound like vain assumption to write like you are sure your work will be funded, or does it sound insecure to write like you’re not sure? If you come off either too insecure or too vain, then no matter how well you demonstrate the merits of your work, you will turn people off and won’t be successful.

Let’s start by thinking about what it looks like to write too humbly. How many words or phrases do you see in the example below that express uncertainty?

Birch Park is just a small wildlife refuge with a few educational programs, but we believe that if you decide to fund us, we should be able to maintain our paths and clean up litter every week or so. We will also try to start keeping records of some of the species in the park, so that we might be able to tell if their populations decline, and then see if we can help them.

Click to page 2 below to see the answer and keep reading the article.

How Do You Want Your Readers to Feel?
The 4 C’s

To be successful in your mission-based writing, you must carefully consider how you want your readers to feel. Most of the time, you are aiming to elicit four different responses simultaneously, which I call the four C’s. Miss any one of them, and you will not get the results you want.

How You Want to Make Readers Feel: the 4 C’s
  • Concerned about the problem
  • Compassionate toward the constituents (including themselves, if you are trying to engage them in services)
  • Confident in your ability to address the problem
  • Captivated by your story of real or potential impact, so they will remember you


A helpful exercise is to take a piece of writing and assess how well it addresses the 4 C’s.

Here is an example from a need statement that has major problems with all 4 C’s:

There is little that can be done to stop the arts from disappearing from schools, and economically disadvantaged families usually cannot afford the time or money to go to museums, performances, or art classes. Many low income people do not appreciate the arts, so it is a challenge to fill our programs. Those who do attend usually come only once. Still, Silver Arts Center continues to offer exhibits, performances, and art classes, hoping that through us, at least some of the urban underprivileged will become involved in the arts.

How Does it Address the 4 C’s?
  • Concerned: The passage talks about the arts disappearing without discussing the value of what is dying out. It depicts people with low incomes as not being interested in the arts and does not show how they are missing out on something that would be of value to them. The issue also sounds more depressing than concerning. When concerned, people are motivated to want a solution to a problem; when depressed, we just feel down about it. This passage makes the situation appear so hopeless that the reader just wants to move on to something else and not think about this seemingly unsolvable problem.
  • Compassionate: The passage paints the constituents as ignorant, unappreciative, uncultured, and inferior to those working at the arts center. This judgmental attitude blocks compassion for the constituents – or leads readers to feel compassion for their plight in having to deal with such a judgmental, superior nonprofit, rather than feeling compassion for their lack of access to the arts.
  • Confident: While the passage shows the nonprofit’s superior attitude, it does not make the reader feel at all confident in the organization’s ability to do their work. On the contrary, the classicism it exhibits shows a huge obstacles to successful engagement of the constituents. It also explicitly states that the arts center has trouble filling their programs and getting repeat attendees, and the reader suspects this may have more to do with the organization’s classicism than with the constituents’ lack of appreciation for the arts.
  • Captivated: Far from being captivated by this organization’s story or impact, the reader is left either wanting to forget what was written, or remembering it only because its classicism sparks a sense of righteous indignation against the organization.


In contrast, here is an example that describes the same arts center using the four C’s:

Our schools are giving away their pianos and replacing their walls of student watercolors with walls of standardized test scores. The arts are being erased from schools, and families with low incomes have difficulty affording museums, performances, or art classes. People struggling to make a living without access to the arts often do not even have a chance to learn the value creative pursuits could add to their lives. At Silver Arts Center, we believe that creative expression is a vital part of human life and should be available to all, so we offer free exhibits, performances, and art classes in the bustling heart of downtown. We highlight local talent and locally relevant topics, stimulating the art lover – and the artist – innate in each person.


How Does it Address the 4 C’s?
  • Concerned: The passage discusses the value of the arts and paints a picture of what it means for students and adults with low incomes to live without them. It makes the problem sound solvable through the organization’s work.
  • Compassionate: The passage describes the constituents in a way that anyone could relate to; instead of judging them for not appreciating the arts, it shows how their circumstances prevent them from even getting to see what they are missing. It paints the constituents as no different than the writer or the reader, except for their situation. It affirms the artist in every person and makes the reader feel for constituents and want them to have access to the arts.
  • Confident: The passage makes the arts center sound like they are part of the community, responsive to the community’s needs, and genuinely appreciative of and connected to the people they serve.
  • Captivated: The organization sounds inspiring and warm. The passage makes the reader imagine how the arts center must be filled with struggling people who have found that its classes uplift them and transform their lives through enabling them to discover the joy of creating art.


While these examples are extreme, you may find on examination that your writing is strong on two or three of the C’s, but omits or is weak on the other one or two. Make sure it is strong in all four, and your readers will respond.

Mission-Based Writing as Creative Writing

Many people see grant writing and copywriting as necessarily dry and boring, but they’re actually most effective if you use your creative writing skills. The more you can bring your work to life, the more persuasive and memorable your writing will be. And one of the best ways to bring your work to life is to use sensory language that makes readers imagine what it looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like.

Here’s an example of a purely factual description:

Suzie’s House provides beds, meals, and fun activities for youth experiencing homelessness. We have adult mentors facilitate the group activities, and the youth and mentors cook and eat all meals together. We even have a foosball table.

And here’s another description that’s about the same length, but feels completely different:

Suzie’s House finds youth sleeping on hard park benches in the cold, and brings them inside for cozy beds, foosball, and laughter. Youth and adult mentors connect while cooking and eating favorite meals together, such as pizza and spaghetti.


Try looking at your writing and thinking of where you can add sensory details that will make your readers imagine the challenges you address, how wonderful it feels to participate in your work, and how much better life can be afterward.


How Mission-Based Writing is Like Dating

Think of a time when you were infatuated with someone, and you wanted to get them to like you, connect with them, and see if you could get a relationship going. That’s actually what you’re always trying to do in mission-based writing. Whether your goal is to persuade a foundation to fund your work, a donor or volunteer to contribute, or a potential client to come receive services, what you’re really trying to do is build a relationship, so it can help to apply commonsense dating tips to your writing.

Here are a few common sense tips to follow if you want to get a relationship going with someone new, whether in dating or in mission-based writing.

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Three Crucial Tips for Writing About
Your Participants

Even when your heart is in the right place, it is all too easy to write about the participants of your work in a way that subtly disempowers or dishonors them. Here are three important considerations to make sure you avoid this faux pas.

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How to Bring Your Work to Life with Participants’ Stories

Whether you are seeking new clients, participants, donors, funders, or volunteers, you need your writing to bring your work vividly to life so they will imagine what it is like and want to receive it or help you provide it. Quotations and stories are the best way to illustrate what your work truly feels like to real people … but only if you use them effectively.

The last Flight Log explored what makes a quotation strong, how to fit them when you have very little space to work with, and how to collect good ones. Now let’s talk about how to effectively use participant stories.

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