Lexical Liberation: Demystifying Philanthropy through the Abandonment of Jargon

(Why We Should Talk Like Normal People in Philanthropy)

Shaz Reece, Murihiku Insights, Te Rourou, One Aotearoa Foundation


The language we use in philanthropy is super (duper) important and should be accessible to all, as in, everyone should be able to understand what you’re talking about.

As of last week, I’ve been in the philanthropic world for one year. Before this, I couldn’t have told you much about it. In fact, it was probably a year ago that I typed ‘philanthropy definition’ into Google (you know you’ve done it too). Little did I know that this would be the first of countless sneaky Google searches as I began my journey into the depths of Philanthropic Jargon (words and terms used by a specific profession or group).

As funders, we have been slowly making progress to acknowledge the overwhelming power imbalance held over grant recipients (we hold the funds, we hold the power). We need to keep the momentum going, questioning more than just our funding methods, and ensuring we are interacting with the community in an equitable (fair) and accessible way for all.

My title at Te Rourou, One Aotearoa Foundation is ‘developmental evaluator’…lol, what does that even mean?! Well, turns out it means that I gain insights from our Invercargill Initiative; learn from, reflect on, and adapt the mahi as the initiative unfolds (as opposed to evaluating after the fact). That makes sense to me…now…after a year. But I can tell you how it reads to our community partners and grant recipients: developmental EVALUATOR. Not a term fondly welcomed into any organisation who is constantly having to prove their worth in a world of competitive funding (jumping through hoops to get funded).

The title ‘Person who researches and collects data to make sure we’re doing things good’ paints a better picture of what I do, but I prefer ‘Murihiku Insights’. What’s in a name? Everything.

A while ago, I had some rangatahi ask me to explain the words I was using when interviewing them. In that moment, it became clear that the Philanthropic Jargon brainwash had reached its final stage. I had finally levelled up to Gatekeeper of the Sector, ready to promote an unnecessarily complicated vocabulary to the next generation of philanthropists.

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

I’ve got no answer to that, but I did gain some insight: Gen Z are coming, and they don’t have time for our nonsense.

At a recent Youth Advisory Group (YAG) retreat, I heard similar frustrations from my fellow youths (see: ‘fellow kids’ meme) working in philanthropy. Our young people are being made to feel out of place because they can’t instantly translate a secret language made up by those looking to protect their privilege – a language which is continuously loaded with increasingly pointless acronyms (or AIMLESS – Acronyms and Initialisms Making Language Extremely Smug and Stupid).

We need to regularly acknowledge philanthropy’s long history as a system steeped in privilege and racial inequity (where minority populations have rarely had a say about their own wellbeing). The people working on the ground are far too busy doing the actual work bettering the lives of those in their communities, they don’t have the time or energy to decipher our cryptic messages.

If we’re giving young people a platform to have their say, if we’re aiming for a fair playing field for everyone; young people learning to give grants, organisations receiving grants, and the people benefitting from those grants, let’s make sure that the invitation is in a language they can understand.

(If you have to follow everything with an explanation in brackets, you’re doing it wrong)