Thursday, April 26, 2018
Knowledge Exchange



by Maryann Kerr

This article can be also be found at

Investment or love gift? The language of philanthropy matters

When my children first asked what I do for a living, I told them I help make the world a better place. Why else would I leave two glorious little beings every day? When they got older, they wanted to know how I make the world a better place. I told them I was a matchmaker.

I explained that I work to match causes or organizations with individuals, foundations and corporations who will work together to make the world a better place. While this is, of course, a simplification of the work we do, matchmaker more accurately described my work day than did the term fundraiser. Young children cause you to be keenly aware of the language you use as well as that used around you.

Aim hired gun at target?

As a consultant, I had a myriad of interesting job descriptions of which my least favourite was being considered the hired gun. Clients were interested in knowing how to ‘sell’ their cause; what the ‘pitch’ package should include, and who should be ‘targeted’ to give. They inquired on how best to show donors a ‘return on their investment.’ They wondered about the need for ‘legally binding donor agreements.’ It seems that as a profession we have adopted the language of business to describe our work.

The frequency with which this language creeps into my own conversations leads me to wonder if we have gone too far. Are we within our profession losing the language of altruism? Do we describe ourselves and our work in a manner that leads to confusion about what we do and how we do it?

Through a dialogue with five individuals whom I consider among the most brilliant in our profession, I explore these questions: Are we moving too far away from the heartfelt language of altruistic giving? How important is the language we use to describe our work? Has the language we use changed over the last ten years and to what impact? I would like to extend my thanks to the following people for sharing their time, talent and insight on the topic of language:

Sharilyn Hale, Director of Philanthropy, YWCA Toronto; Tennys Hanson, VP and CDO, University Health Network; Dianne Lister, VP, External Relations & Advancement, Trent University; Nicholas Offord, President, The Offord Group and Ken Wyman, Professor & Coordinator, Postgraduate Fundraising & Volunteer Management Program, Humber College.

Business volunteers bring their usual vocabulary

The panel agrees that the language of our profession has changed, though according to Tennys Hanson this change is more of a “slow evolution” than a “quantum leap.” The change occurs due to engaged relationships with volunteers who work in the for-profit sector.

“It’s my view,” says Nicholas Offord, “that most of this has not been driven by the fundraising community so much as by the volunteer – read business – community, who often want to make giving as familiar to them as other transactions. We do have a duty to the donors to make our case to them in philanthropic terms as well as transactional terms. This has largely been driven by a growth in major gift philanthropy which, almost by definition, implies an impact and change on a charity that is significant. While trust and belief in the mission is a prerequisite to giving, it’s not unreasonable for both parties to set out reasonable and mutual expectations with respect to the provision and use of funds.”

Further, as Sharilyn Hale notes, “Some of the terminology reflects the reality of the current fundraising environment. Organizational pressures, legal liabilities and implications, and the engagement of corporate metrics require fundraisers to balance the business of giving with the heart of philanthropy, while not losing the very aspirational spirit that enriches their organizations and donor interactions. As fundraisers, our language needs to reflect the intention of our work and bring honour to the philanthropic process and experience our work supports.”

Give up jargon, not discipline

For all of the panelists, the use of language requires taking a balanced approach and using language that is thoughtful, respectful and intentional. “There is a lot of language that we use that is jargon,” said Hanson, “Every industry has their own version of that but it is not useful for Board members and volunteers. My philosophy is that when donors give they truly are giving a gift and everything should flow from that. However, we do need a disciplined, business approach including documenting everything. It is important to use language that is respectful to donors and staff. One of my personal dislikes is the language used in direct marketing including the term ‘kill files.’”

Everyone agrees that the language we use is important. Dianne Lister articulated how this translates to action within her team. “My staff doesn’t talk about fundraising because that is transactional. They report on philanthropy, with great intentionality, because it is about volunteerism, giving from the heart, as well as financial and philosophical. For the board, it is about developing individual philanthropic plans. A transactional approach just doesn’t build relationships.”

This is the first of a two-part article on the impact of the changing language associated with philanthropy. Part 2 will appear in the next issue of CF&P.