Why nonprofits need to switch to person-first language immediately - Generocity Philly


May 21, 2018 9:49 am

Why nonprofits need to switch to person-first language immediately

Direct-service orgs are perfectly equipped to drive large-scale adoption of more humanizing word use, argues columnist Valerie Johnson.

People first.

(Photo by A. Ricketts for Visit Philadelphia)

Lately, I’ve noticed a whole lot of nonprofit staff who support marginalized populations or people with a health issue or disability using language that both irritates and frustrates me.

It’s a problem that doesn’t just apply to my fellow fundraisers and nonprofit workers but to the general public, and in most cases, it comes from a place of ignorance.

People-first language, also called person-first language, is language that avoids conscious or subconscious marginalization or dehumanization when discussing people. People-first language is best known for referring to people with health issues or disabilities, but applies to any group that is defined by their condition or situation.

First, let’s review examples of person-first language vs. dehumanizing language:

  • A person with diabetes vs. a diabetic
  • A person with a disability vs. a disabled person
  • A person with a substance use disorder vs. an alcoholic
  • A person experiencing homelessness vs. a homeless person
  • A person with bipolar disorder vs. a bipolar person
  • A kid or teen in the foster care system vs. foster care kid

Now, take a hard look at the examples above. What’s the difference between the first and the second term for each group? Well, the first term recognizes that first and foremost, you’re talking about a person. A human being who has a disease, disability or is dealing with a temporary situation. A mom, dad, brother, sister, friend, neighbor or coworker who does not want their entire existence to be defined by one aspect of their life.

The second term for each group defines a person by their situation. It reduces that person to a label. It devalues and disrespects them, promotes stereotypes and other-izes them. It implicitly reinforces a sense of permanency regardless of the situation; homelessness, foster care, addiction, obesity and so many more can be (and often are) temporary situations. Yet people are still referred to as homeless far more often than they are a person experiencing homelessness.

In a perfect world, person-first language would be the rule, not the exception. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly new philosophy that first appeared in the US in the 1980s and it will probably take a while before it becomes colloquially accepted.

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As a fundraiser, not only is it important for me to respect the people who are helped by the funds I raise by using appropriate language, but it’s also important for me to educate our supporters.

So, knowing that the whole world is not going to jump on board immediately, my crusade is slightly smaller. I want to live in a world where nonprofit workers — everyone from the direct-service staff, administrative staff and fundraisers to the executives and board members — do not use language that dehumanizes the people that they support.

I attended a conference recently and the keynote speaker referred to “the disabled” and “the homeless” in her speech on fundraising. Sure, “the homeless” makes people sound like victims that need your support and might lead to more donations.

But, to me at least, that kind of reasoning is skirting the line between respectful fundraising and poverty porn (a type of media which exploits a condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for increasing support). And quite honestly, the resilience and strength shown by those I’ve known who experienced homelessness far surpasses those who haven’t been challenged by housing insecurity; they’re not victims and they will persevere until they achieve stability with or without your help.

As a fundraiser, not only is it important for me to respect the people who are helped by the funds I raise by using appropriate language, but it’s also important for me to educate our supporters.

In a previous role I worked with youth in foster care or experiencing homelessness, and it took me a while to build the confidence to have conversations with volunteers and supporters who were not using person-first language. Though I was a little nervous, at the end of the day almost everyone I talked with appreciated the opportunity to learn and better support the young people our organization helped.

Your donors and volunteers support your organization for a reason: They care about the work you do and the people you support. You’re doing them a disservice by not correcting disrespectful language or explaining what person-first language sounds like.

And you’re doing an even larger disservice to the people your organization helps by not using person-first language yourself. Don’t even get me started on how traumatizing it is for folks with disabilities to overhear their case worker talking about “the disabled client” on their caseload. How will that client ever trust you or believe you have their best interests in mind after hearing you say that?

Fellow fundraisers and nonprofit workers, let’s make a pact to respect the people that we work with, use appropriate language, and educate our supporters to understand the nuances of person-first language. Together we can make person-first language the rule, not the exception.


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