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Why Environmentalists Need to Lose their Acronyms

Posted by on January 12th, 2011
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Fundraising, Nonprofit Messaging    Tags: , , , , , ,

“Don’t call it ANWR! It’s not a dead Egyptian president, it’s America’s Serengeti.” That was my constant cry during the ‘80s when I worked for The Wilderness Society trying to keep oil wells out of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I harangued my environmental colleagues and the media to eschew the acronym Big Oil were so wise to consistently employ. The oil industry knew—and continues to know—it’s a whole lot easier to build support to drill “anwar” than its full name that evokes a distant and magical place teeming with wildlife.

Whatever the field of interest, people have a tendency to use insider jargon and acronyms, even when they’re talking to outsiders who don’t speak their language. In the process, they miss the chance to engage the listener and begin a deeper conversation.

Environmentalists are no exception and have been known to ask the public to comment on an EIS prepared pursuant to NEPA for a project that would affect a WSA managed by the BLM within the DOI. Huh? Wouldn’t it be better to simply ask for help to keep a road out of one of our last precious wilderness areas so critical to the legacy of nature we leave to future generations?

Avoiding the use of acronyms extends to the names of organizations. Every time you use your organization’s initials, you pass up the opportunity to make an emotional connection with your listener.

If your group’s name is long, then you should control how it is abbreviated and find a way that continues to evoke your vision.

Environmental Defense Fund, for example, has always referred to itself as EDF.Even after 30 years and the challenge of changing longstanding habits, they would better serve their goals by dropping EDF and using Environmental Defense for short. For a while, they actually did drop Fund from the name, but I guess they didn’t like being referred to as ED, so they reclaimed it. Either way, Environmental Defense sounds much more like something I want to be part of than EDF, whatever that is.

In contrast, WildEarth Guardians—one of my favorite organizations—always uses its full and very evocative name. Similarly, Earth Island Institute, another exceptionally effective organization, abbreviates its name to Earth Island when the full name is just too much of a mouthful. They know that every time they say or write their names, an image blooms in the minds of their audience. WG and EII just don’t have the same effect.

The point is if you don’t control how your organization’s name is abbreviated, others will. Your name is a message in itself and every mention of it makes a statement. Make sure you use it to your best advantage.

Does this advice resonate with you? Got any good incomprehensible acronym examples to share? Tell us how you might make changes to improve how you communicate with your supporters.


Susan Alexander is a Mission Minded Senior Strategist. She has decades of experience working with nonprofit organizations as a communications and fundraising consultant.

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12 responses to “Why Environmentalists Need to Lose their Acronyms”

  1. What a good reminder, Suzan. The story we need to tell is about the listener’s experience. That takes vivid imagery, not in-group code.

    Here’s a more modest tip for telling a good story. JD Salinger wrote for pages and pages without a word ending in “-tion.” It makes a difference.

    Glad you’re sharing!

  2. Thanks, everyone.
    I’m pondering Jono’s tip to eschew “-tion,” which reminds me of an old saw to eschew obfuscation. I guess that breaks all kinds of rules about keeping your listener in mind.

  3. ” For a while, they actually did drop Fund from the name, but I guess they didn’t like being referred to as ED, so they reclaimed it.”

    Haha! Classic!!!

    Strategic communication, or STRATCOM — okay, not technically an acronym, but we use it — is all the rage nowadays. Even the military is doing it. And we are perhaps the worst offenders. I work in the SAT, a section of the SAO-A, which is part of the NTM-A/CSTC-A here in Kabul, itself part of NATO. Our mission is extremely important. We advise the ANA and the ANP. It is so important, in fact, that many people — from our own nations — want to see us fail. You’d think with all the hearts and minds we have to win here and at home that we would take Strategic Communications very seriously. And we do. Except for all those darn acronyms. And that’s isn’t the half of it. We miss the opportunities you describe everyday. And more.

    On a personal note, I’m working in a JMD billet as part of my organization’s contribution. My organization, you ask? The USMC. Part of the DOD, defender of the USA.

    Too many people assume that being able to abbreviate half of their speech with cool-sounding acronyms confers authority and legitimacy. We learn this from our political leaders, from marketing campaigns, from popular “post-industrial” culture, and a myriad of other mutually reinforcing social mechanisms. Some of my acquaintances acually make an effort to invent a project name or a section heading that will provide a cool and catchy acronym…but not because it is part of some strategic communication effort…if the acronym sounds cool enough, it was worth all that effort. Because it’s cool, after all.


  4. Nice article. Thoughtful and appropriate in the current milieu of texts, tweets, social updates, blogs and comments like this. Im a fan of spelling it out!

  5. Susan’s plea for accessible language is the best lesson any environmental advocate can learn. We gain little when only our friends understand us. Converting the language of science and conservation into conversation is harder than it seems. But it is essential to gaining the momentum we need to pass progressive legislation, or to fight a battle of public opinion against deep-pocketed adversaries. Whether your ultimate audience is a voter, a mayor, a state legislator or the President, count on the fact that they haven’t thought about earth sciences much since 10th grade. Well done, Susi!

  6. Thanks, John. We could all learn these lessons from you. You do a great job of it for the super effective Adirondack Council.