Nonprofit Sector

How and why we built our own identity style guide

March 17, 2021

This blog is part of an ongoing series written by members of NFF's Social Innovation and Equity Council exploring how equity shows up in their work.

“Call me poor.”

Years ago, a person I was interviewing made this small but surprising request. He described the events of his life and the worldview he embraced that led him to favor that term. “Don’t call me low-income,” he insisted. “I’m poor.”

My organization’s style guide insisted on using low-income, but for that story I made an exception. It was a low-stakes ethical dilemma, but one I’ve often thought about when representing people’s identities in writing.

Style guides are designed to give quick, authoritative answers on questions of spelling, usage, and punctuation: Use the Oxford comma. Spell out numbers one through nine. Write “grantmaker,” not “grant maker.”

As Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) began to step up its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), my coworkers and I began to see the need for clearer guidance on sticky issues of identity that weren’t covered by our house style, which is based on the AP Stylebook. Were communities disadvantaged, distressed, impoverished, low-income, marginalized, poor, underprivileged, under-resourced, underserved, or vulnerable – all of which were acceptable under AP Style? How about individual people within those communities? Was the correct phrase able-bodied, enabled, or non-disabled – or does not have a disability? Were folks black, Black, African-American, or African American?

The search for answers led to some important lessons about what and how NFF communicates, and spurred the development of a unique identity style guide that helps writers choose the best word for a given situation – not the term that’s simply in vogue or sounds right. The guide helps us to live out our Equity in Action value by making sure our language mirrors the inclusive and equitable ways we seek to work and presents clients as they wish to be seen.

Thinking Through Identity

When we began this work there were already a few equity-centered style guides floating around to supplement AP style: the Diversity Style Guide, A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Conscious Style Guide, and the style guides of various journalist associations. These are all excellent resources for thinking through word choice. But none of them quite captured our work and the way we needed to talk about it. And so I started to build NFF’s own Identity Style Guide, using these resources as a base.

I quickly started to worry I’d get something wrong or leave someone out entirely. I’m a white, straight, cis man. I have privilege. I have blind spots. So I began to reach out to coworkers to help me collect entries and think through instructions for use. It was unintentionally a great way to build trust into the process: people from across the organization became invested in the project and began to work together to think through terms that so often divide us.

As the guide began to take shape, we ran into a problem. Some entries had clear answers (African American should not be hyphenated, they is okay as a gender pronoun) while others did not (some people prefer Black, while others prefer African American; distressed and underserved are not exactly the same and each only works in certain contexts). People’s identities transcend mere elements of style. Writing about identity requires thoughtful engagement that was difficult to capture in a yes/no way.

The solution was to turn the ambiguity of word choice into an asset, asking writers to consider their word choices rather than providing them with blanket answers. In many instances the guidance is simply to find out how people or groups refer to themselves. It’s an approach we hope will yield more thoughtful communications – and communicators – throughout the organization.

Building and Maintaining the Identity Style Guide

Here’s how it works: Each entry features a term and a description providing context. Some entries include synonyms or examples of proper usage. Each term is color-coded red (avoid), yellow (use with caution), or green (generally okay to use). To assist colorblind readers, each term can be moused over to see the guidance.

Example entry from NFF's Identy Style Guide for Latino/Latina/Latinx
An entry from NFF's Identity Style Guide

After assembling the entries, it became clear they were united by a few core themes, which we collected as seven suggestions for equitable and inclusive writing:

  • Use asset framing. Show people’s aspirations before talking about the challenges they experience.
  • Acknowledge the causes of inequities, whether direct, cultural, or systemic.
  • Honor personal identities and values. Be as specific as possible when referring to identity and defer to a person’s terminology.
  • Treat people as people. If it is necessary to identify a person by race or gender, ask them how they wish to be identified. Use identifiers as adjectives, not nouns.
  • Give credit to the work of others.
  • Strive to be an ally. Recognize your privileges (e.g., as an employee of a CDFI) when representing other people’s stories and sharing them with others. When possible, present people in their own words.
  • Be mindful of the politics of language.

Finally, we developed an annual review process to ensure terms would stay up to date. Language is constantly changing, and adding and removing words is a balancing act. A common term a decade ago might be deemed offensive today, and words that have been circulating only in academic or advocacy circles for years may suddenly pop into the mainstream and gain acceptance. Any staff member may suggest changes to the identity style guide in a process overseen by the Knowledge and Communications department and the Social Innovation and Equity Council (SIEC).

It takes time and effort to overcome the inertia of language – the impulse to choose a word out of convenience rather than consideration. And at NFF it’s not just about language – the words follow the work, and our work is increasingly leading us to support community-centered nonprofits led by and serving people of color. It’s a big, complex effort. But the small things remain important, like respecting people’s identities by referring to them as they wish and acknowledging the causes of inequities to show the systems that keep people from reaching their full potential. These small things help us to honor the humanity of those we work with and see the world in a more equitable way.