Creating a DEI Style Guide for Your Nonprofit

By Lisa Hirst Carnes | September 2022

Photo collage of many different human eyes.

As a marketer, you're likely familiar with style guides. Whether it's a design or brand voice guide, or a recognized guide such as the AP Stylebook. 

Style guides help organizations communicate and come across as a cohesive whole. They define brand personality, visual elements, and how to communicate with audiences.

One type of style guide is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) style guide. Here are a few reasons to consider creating one:
  • An inclusive culture will help your organization meet its business goals
  • Inclusive cultures appeal to a broader audience
  • Diverse voices lead to innovation and a more agile response to changing conditions
  • It offers tangible proof to donors of your commitment to diversity and inclusion

What Goes Into a DEI Style Guide?

What to include in a DEI style guide will depend on how you define your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Define Your DEI Commitment

Start by creating an overview of your stance, efforts, and goals. It may be helpful to think of this commitment statement as akin to a vision statement. You don't need to get into specifics, but it should document where you want your organization to be. 

Explain and Define Inclusive Language

The Linguistic Society of America defines inclusive language as that which “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” Even neutral language may have the unintended effect of "othering" groups or individuals. Inclusive language seeks to remove implicit or explicit bias.

Once you've defined inclusive language, explain why it's essential that your organization use it. Explain why to not use certain terminology and how those words hurt specific groups. 

Acknowledge That The Conversation is Evolving

As society progresses toward inclusion, what is okay today may not be right in the future. Language is always evolving and it's likely that the ways we express things will change. Make it clear in your DEI guide that it is an ongoing conversation. Invite your employees (or audience) to contribute and review your guide on a regular basis.



How to Craft a Useful DEI Style Guide

Creating materials is time wasted (or seen as virtue signaling) if you don't provide guidance on how to put it to use. Here are a few ways to create a style guide to help your organization use inclusive language.

Identify Areas That Need Inclusive Language

Inclusive language impacts how we talk about ourselves, organizations and affiliations, and others. An inclusive vocabulary is especially important in how we describe ourselves and others:
  • Age
  • Appearance
  • Disability and Health
  • Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Socioeconomic Status
All these aspects describe and identify us. But, some of the words used to do so in the past can be exclusive or offensive. 

Create Lists of Language to Use and Avoid

After identifying non-inclusive language, create lists to avoid and what to use instead. A simple Do and Don't format can be beneficial as a quick reference.  Include references to The Diversity Style Guide or the American Psychological Association. It's also helpful to explain why to use particular language and how former terms can be offensive.

Encourage Person-First Language

Person-first language honors the individual, rather than reducing them to a specific characteristic. Putting the person before the descriptor acknowledges that they're more than the descriptor. Rather than saying "a wheelchair-bound woman," say "a woman that uses a wheelchair". This puts the woman first, and the fact that she uses a wheelchair second.

Advocate for Active Voice

Writing for marketing and business communication uses active voice. Active voice is often the most direct and concise way of relaying what you want to say. Readers can move through the content quicker and identify what you want them to do. 
When paired with inclusive language, active voice puts the subject at the center. It identifies those that do harm rather than putting the emphasis on those they have harmed.

Provide Helpful Examples

No style guide is complete without examples that show the user how to apply each guidance. Examples of inclusive, active, and person-first language will show how to apply each. Who knows, you may even be able to apply a DEI lens to some of your previous communications. 

Include Guidelines for Inclusive Design

Inclusive design considers all the ways that users may access websites. Including accessibility guidelines in the DEI style guide will keep inclusivity in mind. Image alt text and website interactions are all considerations of inclusive design.   

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Is Essential

As we move toward a more equitable future, putting DEI front and center is crucial. A guide will aid your organization's mission, goals, and culture and shift the language we use as well. 

Topics: Nonprofit Help