The Importance of Language

From the Values Blog, written by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green the authors of the book Philanthrocapitalism:

Praise for Philanthrocapitalism as “extremely well written” from an unexpected source – our old sparring partners at Gates Keepers. True, they do also take us to task for being too soft on Bill Gates, but that’s not really a surprise.

The really surprising thing about the review is that, having attacked the idea of philanthrocapitalism for several months, the Gates Keepers admit that have only finally got around to reading the book!  We are getting used to that, having already been subjected to one pre-emptive strike from Michael Edwards, albeit now updated (sign up required). Edwards also confesses to have enjoyed the book, when he finally read it. Ho, hum.

Recently George Overholser suggested the term ROPE as a measurement of the performance of venture philanthropy funders. I pointed out that the phrase did not have the financial markets “baggage” of the phrase SROI (which is similar to the financial metric ROI).

Language is important. When the financial crisis first hit, a number of people asked if I would change the way I wrote about philanthropy because I often use concepts from financial markets. My response then and now is that I’m not going to change my position based on what goes in and out of style. But I’ll always change my position if I come to the conclusion that I’ve been wrong in some way.

Philanthrocapitalism was a huge debate last year, probably because of the word itself. It seems a shame to me that people have such knee jerk reactions to things based on what they are called instead of what they are. But that’s the reality of humans. So it seems to me that we need to be careful what we call things.

“Nonprofit” and “tax-exempt organizations” compared to “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurs” is probably a good example of this. The first two are horrible words that say nothing about what the organizations do. The second two are far more engaging and dynamic. What words do you use that you think you should change?


  1. kschnee says:


    I also believe in the importance of language, and I believe in being careful about being caught up in clever acronyms. When I saw the suggestion of ROPE as a term of art, my first thought was of the old idiom “If you give a man enough rope he will hang himself,” which doesn’t do us any good, does it? 😉

  2. George Overholser says:

    I wonder what folks think about “SEGUE”, (short for “Sustainable Enhancement Grant”). These are the words we use at NFF to identify our Philanthropic Equity methodology. It is pronounced “segway”, and, of course, also means “smooth transition”.

  3. Hmm. kschnee I can see your point. I liked ROPE because it was not simply an attempt to use a financial metric and give it a nonprofit spin. But “rope” doesn’t seem to relate to what George’s meaning is.

    George, I like SEGUE as an NFF “product” name. But I’m not sure it is a good choice for a standard word to mean an philanthropic equity grant.

    Naming things is really hard. I know. I’ve just recently been trying to name something.

  4. George Overholser says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Sean. It is indeed hard to name things. And SEGUE has become something of an NFF thing.

    With SEGUE we were originally attempting to come up with a generic name that was in the same category as a PRI (Program Related Investment). I feel like Sustainable Enhancements is what Philanthropic Equity is all about.

    More recently, I’ve also liked “Philanthropic Equity” quite a bit as the generic name for this stuff, despite the for-profit-like baggage.