7 Questions To Make Your Messaging More Inclusive

If your organization has made the serious and authentic commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, it’s time to make sure your communications reflect your mission, vision, and values—and your understanding of the work ahead.

Yet it’s not uncommon for even the most committed and well-intentioned communicator to inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes that perpetuate racism, exclusion, and inequality.

Here are seven guiding questions to help you turn your commitment into action to ensure your messaging is as authentic, inclusive, and anti-racist as possible. Think of this as a checklist to review your communication drafts moving forward and any previously-written content (such as your website) that you’d like to improve.

1. Are you using person-first language?

In your messaging, don’t forget to acknowledge people first and then what they are experiencing second:

  • Homeless people → People experiencing homelessness
  • Disabled people → People who are disabled
  • Marginalized people → People who have been marginalized

Labeling people by their experiences subconsciously reduces them to that single experience, creating a narrow–or even worse–a stereotypical view of who that person or community is in your reader’s minds.

You can create a true connection when you acknowledge that they are people and that circumstances happen, most times due to systemic inequities.

2. Are your actions “with” or “for”?

You often see nonprofit messaging that reads something like this, “We are fighting for the voiceless, and we are here to give them a platform to succeed!”

This communicates that the organization is the one with all the power to solve the problems those they serve are facing. This type of message creates a power imbalance that doesn’t give their constituency any agency over their lives, reinforcing the savior narrative that wrongly makes the issue about the “savior” instead of the person who has been harmed.

Instead, discuss how your organization pairs, collaborates and aligns with your community to increase inclusion and equity. As you’re drafting messages, ask yourself: Where is my organization being positioned relative to those we are talking about? Is my organization being seen as above, below, or side-by-side? Close your eyes and visualize how it looks when you think about that message.

3. Are you using asset-based framing?

Asset-based framing is shifting stories and messages by starting with an individual’s or community’s aspirations before you talk about their challenges or limitations.

This guiding question is especially important to ask when you’re drafting stories of organizational impact. Nonprofits tend to immediately point out the challenges of those they serve and how their organization can solve them to show a clear impact. Again, these types of stories diminish the agency of those they serve and can reinforce characterizations of dependency and dehumanization.

Focus your story on what the individual or communities’ aspirations are. Their challenges are details that come up as part of the journey, not as immediate limitations to what they can accomplish.

4. Have you challenged expectations?

Part of asset-based framing is challenging harmful perceptions in our society.

All of us hold conscious and unconscious biases, especially towards communities who have been historically marginalized that can seep into our writing and thus the stories we tell, perpetuating stereotypes and negative perceptions.

The more we can create stories around positive representation, showing limitless possibilities of what individuals and communities have historically, currently, and aspire to achieve, we will begin to see perception shifts.

5. Have you named the thing?

Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Advisor, Tierney Yates, always encourages us to name the thing in our messaging. Name the thing refers to naming the social, economic, and political systems that have created and maintained inequities in our society.

This is an important guiding question to ask when creating messages that bring awareness to the problems your organization exists to address. Most of the time, these are not individual problems but symptoms of greater systemic inequities. Naming those inequities opens the door to better understanding, solutions, and empathy for those who have been hurt by these systems.

While you name the thing, avoid associating or blaming these problems on the people who experience them.

6. Have you acknowledged BIPOC realities?

Acknowledge that individuals from different communities go through different experiences because of systemic inequities. Living as a black man who is gay is a different experience than living as a Latina who is straight. Intersectionality is key to understanding the different identities we have as people and how those identities impact us. Each will experience inequity and racism differently. Honoring these differences allows people to be seen for who they are as individuals rather than as categories.

Once you recognize that your organization’s services and programs impact people differently, this will allow you to tell stories authentically through their voices while prioritizing their identity. It’s important that the lived experience of those you serve is acknowledged and uplifted.

7. Is this your story to tell?

There’s no question that stories are essential to communicating the need for and success of your mission. They are assets for your organization but also belong to the protagonist first. Ask yourself these questions before sharing:

  • Who should tell the story?
  • Do we have consent to use the story? Can that consent be retracted?
  • Is the consent informed (where and how it will be used)?
  • Can the story subject change or edit the story?
  • Have we offered compensation for the story?

This is not the traditional way of writing nonprofit messaging, and it may feel uncomfortable. For a long time, the nonprofit sector hasn’t centered inclusivity at the forefront of its messaging. Fortunately, the sector is becoming increasingly aware of the need to tell stories that are equitable and anti-racist.

  • Actively using these guiding questions does make the writing process longer, but this is the time and care that inclusive messaging requires from all of us. This is the work. It is continuous, and we are always learning. And your brand and messaging will get stronger and stronger the more you lean authentically into these practices.