How (and When!) to Use People-First Language in Your Fundraising

Inspire empathy with the words you choose!

By Anna Koons, Creative Content Manager

What PFL is, and how to use it

In the last several years at BDI, we’ve noticed several of our client partners showing an interest in using people-first language in their fundraising (PFL), especially in the context of talking about homelessness. 

People-first language is a way of communication that describes a condition a person “has” or may be going through, rather than asserting what a person “is.” Practically speaking, this often means that instead of using an adjective before a subject – “a homeless man” – you center the subject and instead describe their condition: “a man who is homeless,” or, a step further, “a man experiencing homelessness.”

When you use people-first language in fundraising, this helps avoid marginalization or dehumanization of the people you are writing about. In other words, it dignifies your subject while also reminding your readers that homelessness is just one aspect of the man you’re introducing them to – he might also be a father, an athlete, a veteran, a former manager. And using the phrase “experiencing homelessness” reminds the reader that this may be a new experience for this man, and hopefully it’s a temporary one.

When to use PFL  

By using people-first language in your fundraising, you can help your donors connect with the subject they’re reading about, but there are some considerations before completely ruling out other ways of speaking. Most obviously, you may have noticed that “a man experiencing homelessness” requires more words than “a homeless man.” This is when we need to consider context

In fundraising headlines meant to be simple and pithy (like on an Outer Envelope of a direct mail appeal, or a pop-up Lightbox on a website), using people-first language can sometimes decrease readability or take away from the “punch” of the message.

Consider these headline examples:

From homeless to hopeful… 

Homeless. Hungry. Scared.

He’s homeless 24/7.  

Using people-first language, they don’t quite have the same impact:

From experiencing homelessness to experiencing hope… 

Experiencing homelessness, hunger and fear.

He’s experiencing homelessness 24/7.  

At BDI, we typically recommend the shorter versions of these headlines, knowing that there will be plenty of space in other parts of the appeal, like the letter or the online donation page, for a richer understanding of who our organizations serve through people-first language (and even better, through first-person testimonies!). 

So, to summarize: Using people-first language in fundraising is better for those you serve and those you’re communicating with. You’re acknowledging the complexity and dignity of your clients, while evoking empathy in your readers. Like most rules in marketing, though, context always matters, and an occasional headline that doesn’t use people-first language is just fine, in our book. 

  • BDI Agency Staff Anna Koons

    Anna Koons, Creative Content Manager

    Anna Koons has been with BDI since graduating from Biola University with an English degree in 2013. She’s always had a strong grasp of grammar and a love of the English language, so it was a natural fit for her to join the proofreading team, where she could use those skills to help change lives and further the ministries of the clients we serve.

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