The Language of Philanthropy

(This is a guest post from Dahna Goldstein, of PhilanTech and I Do Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Dahna Goldstein

One of the things that struck me yesterday is the importance of language in the various contexts of conversations about philanthropy at CoF. There is the obvious – this is an international conference, and all of the sessions are predictably in English, but there are numerous other languages being spoken in the hallways (and by virtually everyone at my lunch table).

But there is also the language of financial investments that is increasingly used to describe not only the endowment side of foundations, but their philanthropic activities as well. Foundation leaders talk about short term versus long term investments in nonprofits, initiatives, ideas. They talk about a portfolio of philanthropic investments, and what percentage of that portfolio should be in “risky” investments. The application of investment language to philanthropy isn’t new, but seems to be more common.

Then there is the question of what we mean by some of the most commonly used words – and some of the most important concepts – in our field:

* Human Rights: Mary Robinson suggested that part of the reason that some of the critical issues of human rights aren’t fully embraced in philanthropy is that “human rights” means different things to different people. Anthony Romero of the ACLU observed that we in the U.S. tend to define human rights as something external (that we export to China or Cuba) versus civil rights which we define as internal;

* Change: Akwasi Aidoo of Trust Africa drew a distinction between two types of change – the change we want to see and that we can influence, and changes that are happening around us to which we need to react (economic, social, technological, etc.);

* Philanthropy: Susan Raymond of Changing Our World posited that the definition of philanthropy itself is changing. Philanthropy has historically been a continuum, a linear process from donations to foundations to grants to nonprofits. Innovations such as emerging bond markets for vaccines that used to be a matter of charity are changing the very definition of philanthropy. Dr. Raymond proposed that the definition of philanthropy may be evolving to include not only charitable organizations, but about a broader social marketplace;

* Philanthropists: The definition of a philanthropist is also changing, fuelled by the increase in micro-philanthropy and the technological tools that are both spurring and supporting its growth. An individual with $25 can arguably now be a philanthropist, which is, in some ways, a radical notion.

It seems the ways we talk about our field help shape it, just as changes in the field help shape the language we use to describe it.

What do you think? How important is the language that we use to describe the work that we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and who is doing it? What are the other key words and concepts that are shaping the field and being shaped by it? How important is it to gain consensus on definitions to support the types of collaborations and impact that this conference seeks to promote?

One Comment

  1. Peter Deitz says:

    In my opinion, the idea that anyone with $25 can be a philanthropist is as radical as the notion that anyone with money to spare can be a consumer. The radicalness of this notion depends on time and place.

    In pre-industrial North America, consumerism was a practice only for the merchant class and nobles. “Everyone a consumer” was a revolutionary idea in the 1840s.

    We are now so inured to the concept, that we tend to think it’s completely natural for anyone with wants and needs to be a consumer.

    I would hope that at some point soon, it will seem completely natural that anyone with a desire to help others and discretionary income to do so, would be considered a philanthropist.

    Radical, yes, but also 100% necessary to realize the potential of philanthropy.