Language Barriers: why the ways in which we talk about philanthropy & civil society are holding us back

15 min readApr 30, 2021

As anyone who has ever worked on a research project about philanthropy will tell you, it is traditional to spend at least 30 minutes at the outset arguing over how to define “philanthropy”. Likewise, anyone who has dipped a toe in civil society policy work will be aware of the unavoidable gravitational pull of conversations about whether to use “charity sector”, “voluntary sector”, “third sector”, “non-profit sector” or something else. I am, of course, being slightly glib for effect here. These definitional debates are not as pointless as I am implying — in fact, they quite often tend to bring to light fundamental and important points of ideology and difference. However, they also reflect a deeper problem: that the language we currently use to talk about giving and civil society is woefully impoverished.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. The question of how we craft more compelling narratives about civil society (and philanthropy’s role within it) has been the backdrop to most of my career to date, yet I find myself increasingly frustrated that these narratives seem to gain little traction in mainstream discussion and consistently fail to cut through into policy debates. At the same time I have been reading a number of books that touch on issues about how our use of language reflects and shapes our understanding of the world (in particular Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks’’, which argues that lack of richness in the language we use to talk about nature is holding back conservation efforts, and Tyson Yunkaporta’s “Sand Talk”, which explores Indigenous language and thought and how it can be applied to modern issues). This has led me to wonder whether I have been looking at this question too narrowly: and whether our paucity of language doesn’t just present a pragmatic challenge for philanthropy wonks like me, but a more fundamental set of challenges for civil society as a whole.

Limited language leads to confusion

The most obvious problem that stems from having limited language when it comes to talking about civil society is that we have to fall back on a small number of terms. This presents a challenge for the writer, as anyone who has had to perform lexical acrobatics in order to avoid repeating the word “giving” too many times can attest. But more importantly, in trying to make a handful of terms encompass multiple different usages and meanings, we run the risk of confusion and loss of clarity.

But more importantly, in trying to make a handful of terms encompass multiple different usages and meanings, we run the risk of confusion and loss of clarity.

Take, for instance, the word “philanthropy”. It’s a relatively straightforward word in the scheme of things (although speaking from experience, it remains difficult to spell correctly on a consistent basis even after nearly 15 years of working in the field…) Any book or report on philanthropy will be able to tell you that the word’s etymological roots lie in Ancient Greek and mean “love of humanity”. Some may even point to its likely origins being in the classical tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE). But this doesn’t tell you much about the complexities that the subsequent two and a half millennia have added to its usage and meaning. It doesn’t tell you about the revival of the word “philanthropy” in the 18th century to refer to a new breed of social campaigner (such as the prison reformer John Howard); or of how the word’s meaning evolved throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as new models of “associated philanthropy” through organisations began to replace direct individual acts of giving. Likewise, it tells you nothing about the development of the new breed of mega-donors in the early 20th century US and how their template of major giving through foundations has come to shape subsequent understanding of the word “philanthropy”; or about long standing debates within theology and philosophy about how we should distinguish between “philanthropy” and “charity”, or between “philanthropy” and “justice”.

I’m not saying that all practitioners need to become experts on the history of philanthropy (although in general, I think the field would benefit from far more historical knowledge and perspective). But understanding at least some of this history is hugely valuable in understanding why modern philanthropy is so maddeningly difficult to define and why there is so much confusion.

Assume, for example, that we choose to define philanthropy by scale and say that all giving above a certain level is “philanthropy”. This immediately raises the question “at what level”? Is there a point at which a gift of £X must be seen as charity but a gift of £X+1 qualifies as philanthropy? This seems patently absurd. And in any case many would argue that defining philanthropy in terms of amounts is wrong in a more fundamental sense, as there are plenty of big money gifts that would be better thought of as charity, and plenty of more modest gifts that would be best thought of as philanthropy.

But if philanthropy is not simply a matter of scale, how should we define it? By the motivation of donors? By the methods they employ? By the structures they use? All of these capture some of the ways in which “philanthropy” is currently used, but none captures all of them. Which brings us back to the central point — that perhaps the problem is that we all in fact mean slightly different things by “philanthropy” and that our mistake lies in trying to make one term contain such a multitude of divergent meanings. (And the same goes for many other examples of the language we use to speak about civil society).

Limiting our ability to express the richness of civil society

Lack of language causing confusion is not the only problem. Even when we have words on which we agree they are too often dry and technocratic, doing little to capture the richness of civil society. We speak of “governance models”, “impact metrics” and “stakeholder mappings”: all arid concepts that give no sense of the passion, commitment, humanity or hunger for change that animates most civil society activity. We define things by what they are not, rather than what they are — for instance talking about “non-profit organisations” or “the third sector” — and in doing so we imply a sense of inferiority to business or government.

We speak of “governance models”, “impact metrics” and “stakeholder mappings”: all arid concepts that give no sense of the passion, commitment, humanity or hunger for change that animates most civil society activity. We define things by what they are not, rather than what they are — for instance talking about “non-profit organisations” or “the third sector” — and in doing so we imply a sense of inferiority to business or government.

When we use this sterile language it limits our ability to speak to ourselves within civil society, as it is hard to inspire and energise people with talk of “sectors” and “stakeholders”. But it may also limit our ability to speak to those in power. It is often stated as fact that we need to speak “the language of government” or “the language of business” if we are to have influence, but what if this is the wrong way of looking at things? What if, rather than trying to fit in with the technocratic lexicons of other sectors, civil society saw part of its role as bringing its own language and concepts to the table and thus expanding the limited boundaries of policy debates?

The language we use reflects dominant modes of thought & power structures

Technocratic language not only makes for boring rhetoric, however. It also reflects existing power structures and dominant modes of thought, and allows them to be projected onto the world. Civil society is supposed to be precisely the place where these dominant modes of thought and existing power structures can be challenged, but if adopting technocratic language leads to this role being undermined, that is a real problem.

Civil society organisations may feel compelled to adopt the terminology of finance or technology in order to be taken seriously by the private sector (or by government), However, this language has been shaped by a whole series of views about what matters in the world and what is of sufficient value to be given a name; so by using it we constrain our ability to point to other things that may have worth but do not fit within the paradigm provided by current modes of capitalism and commerce. This has real world consequences too. It is often argued that “only what is measured matters’’, particularly when it comes to policymaking, so our inability to measure the full value of civil society is a major impediment. Whilst I would argue that this view might need to be challenged to some extent, and the deification of measurement questioned, it is certainly true that if we can’t even express a particular element of the putative value of civil society because we have no words for it then we have no hope whatsoever of making a compelling case for it — whether it can be measured or not.

Language borrowed from other sectors can clearly present challenges by forcing conformity with dominant modes of thought and reflecting existing power structures; but this is also true of a lot of the language that comes from within civil society — particularly our terminology relating to philanthropy. Many of the words we use are laden with historical baggage, and carry implications about the nature of philanthropy and the relationship between giver and receiver that shape our approaches even if we are not aware they are doing so. A word like “grantee”, for example, implies a relationship between an active funder and a passive charity or CSO which is merely there to carry out the funder’s wishes; rather than an active partnership between two parties who want to achieve the same goal (one of whom has resources they want to allocate for that purpose and the other who is able to offer them a means of doing so). Likewise, the widely-loathed word “beneficiary”, used to refer to those who are the end recipients of philanthropic resources, is tied up in a tangled web of implications about philanthropy as largesse, the need for gratitude, and who has the power to decide solutions to poverty and other social problems.

The way that donors and funders talk to themselves about what they do, therefore, shapes their approaches and perceptions of the role different actors in the process have to play. But the way they talk to those that they fund is also hugely important. In practical terms, if particular channels or methods of communication are given priority this can act as a barrier to those who might not feel comfortable using them. Grantmaking processes that place undue value on the written word (particularly where that is restricted to English), or which demand that those seeking support adopt the same language as funders, may put grassroots organisations and those from marginalised communities at a significant disadvantage. Some funders have recognised this, and are either moving away entirely from written grant application processes or are at least running non-written processes in parallel with written ones. Clearly this puts more onus on the funder, as identifying potential grantees without written applications and assessing them through conversations is more resource-intensive, but surely that is where the onus should be? If funders genuinely want to get their resources to the people and communities that are most affected by the issues facing our society, then adapting their grantmaking processes to ensure that they are not preventing themselves from reaching those people and communities is surely an investment, not an expense.

Technology could potentially play an interesting role here. One of the fastest-growing areas of development within the field of artificial intelligence, for instance, is Natural Language Processing (NLP), which focuses on developing automated systems that can deal with natural language (i.e. how people normally speak or write) rather than requiring specially-structured data. When it comes to grantmaking, NLP could open up a number of possibilities. Conversational interfaces, either in the form of site-specific chatbots or voice-operated assistants (like Alexa or Siri), could make it easier to enable larger numbers of applications to be made in spoken form by automating at least part of the process (with human involvement at the appropriate points). Similarly, by applying NLP to social media and news reports, funders might be able to identify organisations (or individuals) already doing interesting things that align with their own goals and mission and proactively contact them — rather than expecting those groups to put time and effort into a written grant application that they may see no return from. (There’s a bit more on these ideas in this blog I did for Catalyst).

I’m not, of course, suggesting that technology is a panacea. We would still need to address the fundamental issues in terms of the language we use within philanthropy and civil society and how we use it. We would also need to be careful that in using approaches like NLP we didn’t simply code our existing language biases into the system (especially because automated systems have a tendency not only to reflect biases, but to strengthen them). But taking into account those caveats, there does seem to be potential for using technology of this kind to democratise grantmaking processes through widening the types of language they are able to incorporate.

Limits of language limit our ability to see the world

The ways in which language can reflect particular world views can lead to practical challenges, as outlined above. But it also brings us to a more fundamental point: that the language we use not only describes our world but fundamentally shapes our ability to experience it. Not having the right words doesn’t just mean that we cannot convey the full richness and value of civil society, but that we may not even be able to grasp it in the first place.

The language we use not only describes our world but fundamentally shapes our ability to experience it. Not having the right words doesn’t just mean that we cannot convey the full richness and value of civil society, but that we may not even be able to grasp it in the first place.

In Robert MacFarlane’s book “Landmarks”, which I mentioned earlier, he laments the loss of many words used to describe the natural world and sets out to document some of the local dialect terms still in use around the UK for various natural features and phenomena, in the hope of “re-wilding our language” to some extent. As he points out, this is not just about having nice terms for things we already know and value; the very act of learning many of these words alters our perception of the world because it offers us new ways of parsing our experience, so that when we look at a landscape with this new language in mind we literally see it differently. And the converse of this is obviously that if we don’t have the right language, we cannot see the world in the right way.

For me, this brings to mind the closing lines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”. Obviously that is partly an observation designed to show off the fact that I had to read the Tractatus at university (and I’m also aware that Wittgenstein was more making a point about his saying/showing distinction and the limits of logical systems), but it does capture the central point quite pithily. It is worth saying, of course, that as with most things about philosophy, the nature of the relationship between our use of language and our perception of the world is heavily debated. There are those who would argue that our ability to structure our experience of the world comes prior to our ability to grasp language (and determines it), and others who would argue that any apparent differences in perception of the world between speakers of different languages can be explained away by sufficiently good translation (so there is no real substantive difference).

However, relatively recent psychological and anthropological evidence suggests that there are in fact genuinely substantive differences in how speakers of some languages perceive the world (as outlined in this article). Members of the Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal community in Cape York, Australia, for instance, have a language in which direction is not based on relative position to an observer, but on cardinal direction terms (north, south, east, west etc). Researchers found that not only does this give them a profoundly better navigational ability (because awareness of location is fundamental to their language and way of thinking), it also has an effect on how they perceive and interpret time and other features of our world. Similar differences (albeit often less stark) have been found between speakers of other languages too, and the authors of the article conclude that:

“language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

When it comes to philanthropy and civil society, therefore, our limitations of language may not be just limitations of expression but limitations of our very ability to experience.

What can we do?

Broadening our linguistic horizons is vital. It can help us to move away from reliance on forms of language and communication that entrench asymmetries of power, or which privilege certain forms of experience over others. It can offer us new ways of expressing the richness and value of civil society; and it may even help us to experience our world differently (or at least understand the different ways in which others might experience it), thus giving us entirely new ways of appreciating that value. This is clearly important in the present, but it is perhaps even more so as we look to the future because limitations of language may become limitations on our ability to imagine alternative ways for our society and world to be.

So what can we do to remedy our linguistic deficit?

For one thing, we (and by “we” here, I primarily mean philanthropoids like me) need to get much better at educating ourselves about different cultures of giving and support around the world. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of them, and they often bring to light concepts that can inform — and sometimes challenge — our received wisdom and preconceptions about how giving works and the roles it can play. Exploring concepts like Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam within the Jewish faith, for instance, or Saddaqah and Zakat within Islam, can shed new light on the relationship between charity and justice, notions of giving as an obligation and the relationship between giver and receiver. Likewise, concepts such as Ubuntu in South Africa or Harambe in Kenya (and many similar concepts among Indigenous people in America and elsewhere) can inform our understanding of how expectations of reciprocity and models of mutual aid interact or overlap with philanthropy. And this is obviously only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more words and concepts from other cultures that we could use to enrich the ways in which we talk about and understand civil society (and probably new ones evolving all the time too!) I feel like I’m on an ongoing journey of learning, and I’d definitely invite everyone else to hop on for the ride as well.

We can also look to the past. There are many archaic terms within philanthropy and civil society that have fallen out of favour (some for good reason), but which still have value. Words like “alms”, “beneficence” and “eleemosynary” may not have much direct utility these days, but understanding how they were used (and why we no longer use them) can certainly inform our understanding of the meaning and implications of the language we do currently use (and its limitations). And maybe we will want to revive some of these older words, or at least appropriate them for new purposes. (I, for one, would definitely be up for getting the word “eleemosynary” back into common usage…)

The other thing we need to do is ensure that people are open to efforts to expand our vocabulary; whether that is those working in philanthropy and civil society or those responsible for making the policies affecting it. This links to the work of movements that are trying to get existing words that might be viewed as “softer”, such as“kindness” or “neighbourliness”, back into policy discussions. Enriching the ways in which we are able to understand and talk about civil society must be seen as a vital part of ensuring that its full value is appreciated when it comes to policymaking (and goes alongside efforts to improve how we measure that value, as organisations like Pro Bono Economics are doing).

As Robert Macfarlane writes in Landmarks (talking about nature rather than civil society, but the point reads across):

“It is my hope that the words grouped here might in some small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape. I do not, of course, believe that these words will magically summon us into a pure realm of harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary which is ‘convivial’ as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word — meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination and ‘encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature’. And, perhaps, that the vibrancy of perception evoked in these glossaries may irrigate the dry meta-languages of modern policy-making”…. To celebrate the lexis of landscape is not nostalgic, but urgent. ‘People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love,’ writes the American essayist and farmer Wendell Berry, ‘and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know’”.

Let us hope, then, that we can find the words to talk about philanthropy and civil society in a way that does lead people to love them and want to defend them in future.




Rhodri Davies is a unrepentant philanthro-nerd, who likes to look at giving from as many angles as possible.