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Lingo in the social & charity work sector

Brianne Turk

Careers Commentator
Have you ever heard human services workers talk to each other? Did it sound like they were speaking a foreign language? We’re not surprised. The social work and charity work sectors - like every sector - has its own unique lingo, and much of the time it sounds like a load of academic, abbreviated hoo-haa.

A SW’er might consult the DSM-5 before using EBP to work with someone with MH concerns, while at the same time offer assistance with their DV situation.

Did you catch that?

Yeah we didn’t either.

Likewise, a NPO might want to make registered charity status by complying with ACNC’s regulations (having charitable purposes and no disqualifying purposes) before securing support from CVP’s and benefactors.


Sector lingo

Sector lingo is taught at university, and for good reason. It says ‘we all work in this realm’, ‘we’re in it together’, forming a bond between colleagues and organisations. It’s an insider’s code that allows workers to communicate quickly and accurately with each other. Where accountability and welfare are concerned, it’s crucial to have a set of standard terms that professionals across the board understand and adhere to.

This language is also important when writing funding submissions, reports for superiors and policies for governing bodies. It meets necessary criteria and demonstrates knowledge and professional integrity. In these instances, it’s appropriate to refer to ‘a person-centred approach’, ‘capacity-building’, ‘strengths-based interventions’ and ‘self-determination’.

But what about when you chat to clients?

Plain language

In a sector focused on promoting and advocating for human rights, improving society, and providing assistance to people in need, using academic terms ostracises the very people the sector aims to reach. It creates a barrier between the worker and the everyday person they are working with, often leaving the person feeling confused or stupid.

Take the word ‘intervention’ for example. Sounds pretty dramatic, right? Perhaps it even has a negative connotation, as if you’re going to intervene in someone’s life? What a foolproof way to invoke fear and resistance in a client! Even the word ‘client’ is a bit off-putting.

A better approach is to use simple, everyday language that puts people (clients) on an equal footing, without the power-play of academic terms and abbreviations. There’s a big difference between the language used between third sector professionals, and the language that benefits the community members you’ll work with.

We’re not saying not to learn your sector jargon. We repeat: it has its purpose. You don’t want to leave yourself open to misconduct if you’re misinterpreting terms you should be familiar with. And besides, getting on top of buzzwords and abbreviations will save you from becoming red-faced in meetings! But when it comes to working alongside everyday people (clients), it’s time to get real.

So here’s a few alternatives to some common terms and phrases. Which would you prefer?

  • I’ll schedule a meeting - Let’s arrange a chat.
  • Build rapport - Get to know you.
  • Screening and assessment - Gather some information from you to find out where you’re at, what you’re looking for and how we can assist.
  • Advocating - Standing up for you and chatting to someone on your behalf.
  • Framework/Model/Theory - The work we do is based on research, we’re not just making it up on the spot.
  • Self-determined - You make the decisions about your own life, not us.
  • Empowerment - Assisting you to be able to have control over your life so you can reach your goals.
  • Goal-oriented approach - We work with you towards your goals.

What other lingo can you reconsider?

The do’s and don’ts 

The way language is used changes with time, and preferences also change between subgroups and organisations, so don’t be afraid to ask people what terms they’d prefer you to use.

Most importantly, never underestimate the power of your language. People unconsciously internalise words, and then form belief systems based on these. This is one of the reasons why bullying can have such a devastating effect. It’s your duty as a social worker or charity worker to use language in a way that empowers the people you work with, and to set an example for how the rest of society should speak to fellow community members.

There are a few golden rules to remember when you’re working in this field, so take note of the following:

  1. Each organisation refers to the people they work with using different terms. Examples include clients, consumers, people, participants, individuals and customers. Be consistent with your organisation.  
  2. Most organisations prefer you to use language that promotes the capacity of their clients. For example, you might say that you are working with someone or alongside someone, rather than doing something for them. After all, if an individual has shown up to see a worker they are not passive in the situation. Even referring to people as clients or my client can be disempowering. We’ve used this term in our article as it is widely understood by non-professionals, however we prefer the term person/people.     
  3. When speaking about someone with a disability, there is a general expectation to refer to the person first, rather than using their disability as their identifying factor. For example, rather than referring to disabled people, you could refer to people with a disability. Rather than referring to that Down-syndrome girl Sally, you would say Sally who has Down-syndrome. Be mindful that there are also some people who don’t like to be referred to as having a disability at all, either because they do not view their capacity as disabling, or because they prefer terms without a negative connotation, such as people of all abilities. It’s best to check with the individual or their family. The sphere of appropriate language in this space is constantly evolving (and there will always be different opinions) so do your research and stay informed.  
  4. When referring to a parent/s, be mindful of the many different types of families that exist. Don’t discriminate by assuming that everyone has two parents: a mum and a dad. When writing a letter you could say ‘Dear parent/guardian/carer’.
  5. Use open and inclusive language allowing room for people’s gender identification and sexual preferences. This includes not limiting documents to only having male and female checkboxes.
  6. When working with people from ethnic, cultural and religious groups, get familiar with the terms they commonly use and the terms they might find offensive. For example, you might like to culturally brush up on terms such as mob, clan, country and walk-about if working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and stay away from phrases such as Oh my God or For Christ’s sake if you’re working with a Christian group.       
  7. No one expects you to know the most appropriate choice of words for every situation. Take the pressure off and remember that it’s always okay to ask an individual/group what terms they’d prefer you to use. This is better than disempowering or offending someone who you’re trying to build a working relationship with.

Keep the conversation going

As a graduate, you probably don’t have your head around all of the professional jargon just yet. When you do secure work, this puts you in the perfect position to provide constructive feedback to your organisation about the way in which they use language with clients. If you don’t know what something means, it’s likely the client won’t either! Find an appropriate time to have a conversation about this with superiors.

Lastly, the not-for-profit and social work sectors are notorious for using abbreviations! To get you on your way, here’s a short glossary of abbreviations and industry terms that you might come across in your work.

Happy learning!

ACNC: Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission

ATSI: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Benefit event: A special fundraising event for charitable purposes where all proceeds above expenses are given to a charity/organisation.

Capacity-building: Recognising what hinders people/organisations from reaching their goals, and working with them to upskill and overcome these obstacles to reach sustainable success.

Charitable foundations/trusts: Not-for-profits that have been set up to provide grants, donations or support to other organisations or people, or that fund their own work.

CP: Child Protection. This refers to the relevant bodies in each state that work to protect children from harm, abuse and neglect.

DSM: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is a book used by certain practitioners and provides a common classification of mental disorders.

DV: Domestic violence. This is when someone uses violence, abuse or intimidation to control or dominate another person who they have been, or are currently in, an intimate relationship with.

EBP: Evidence-based practice. Practice that combines well researched interventions (best practice evidence) with practitioner expertise.

ESV: Employer supported volunteering. Where companies provide external volunteering opportunities for employees. Also called CVP - corporate volunteering program.

Legacy: A gift, property or money given in a will.  

LGBTQI: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex.

NDIS: National Disability Insurance Scheme. An Insurance scheme that provides disability services and support to Australian citizens/permanent residents with a permanent or lifelong disability, and their families and carers. Eligibility criteria applies.   

NFP: Not-for-profit. An organisation where all profit made is reinvested into the organisation to continue carrying out its mission. A more detailed article about NFPs, NGOs & charities can be found here.

NGO: Non-government organisation. Not-for-profit organisations that are set up and run independently of government, that typically focus on widespread welfare or environmental issues, and/or international development.

Philanthropist: Generally used as a term to describe a wealthy person who makes substantial contributions to charitable causes, although by definition it refers to someone who has a love of humankind. Corporate philanthropy is when businesses offer gifts, support or other assistance to charitable organisations.

Stakeholder: Parties involved in a project/business/issue.

Statutory funding: Funding from a government source.

SW: Social Work. Social Workers can be referred to as SWers.

Trustee (in charity sector): A person or board of people who make decisions and take responsibility as the governing body of the charity.

TSO: Third sector organisation. The third sector is another term for the voluntary sector. The first sector is the private sector, and the second is the public sector.

VCS: Voluntary and community sector. An alternate name for the third sector. A number of names are used for this sector including voluntary sector, community sector, social care sector and not-for-profit sector.

For more info about the social work sector, head here.