The Language of What We Do - Exponent Philanthropy
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The Language of What We Do

How do you describe what you do?

Over the past several years I’ve become a fan of words; how we use them and what they mean. This interest was ignited as I listened to a photographer speak about the way people typically describe how he works. What particularly resonated with me was his discussion about the undertones or implied meaning of words and phrases.

  • Shoot a picture has a rather violent connotation.
  • Take a picture can imply something is not given willingly.
  • Capture images conjurers thoughts of a competition.

“What if,” he suggested, “we said ‘Make a picture?’” It was a passing conversation but the concept has remained with me.

Recently while making some photographs of my own, I started thinking about the words we use in philanthropic conversations.

How often do we describe what we do as “giving” or “making” a grant? Do those terms reinforce a power dynamic between donor and recipient? A hierarchy where we as donors have something the potential grantee wants? We have. They want. We have the power. They have the need. It makes me think of the scene in Oliver Twist:

Oliver Twist: Please sir, I want some more.
Mr. Bumble: [thinking he must not have heard right] What?
Oliver Twist: Please sir, I want some…
[pauses hesitatingly]
Oliver Twist: More?
Mr. Bumble: [surprised beyond belief] More?

Do you think those looking for our partnerships ever feel like poor Oliver? Does that foster an environment postured for success?

What if instead of making a grant, we talked about entering a partnership?

As a foundation trustee, how good would it feel to say, “We partnered with nonprofit organization “x” to help improve conditions around issue “y”? After all, isn’t that what we are doing? Or should be?

We endeavor to work cooperatively with nonprofit organizations to address a need we both perceive as important. Each party brings different strengths and abilities to the table. As philanthropists we bring money, no question, but don’t we also bring interest, knowledge, and excitement? The nonprofit brings expertise in an area and hopefully systems, people, and programs to address the issue. What we both bring – or should – is a shared passion for the cause at hand.

Do you send the right message with your words? What words do you use?

  • Make a grant
  • Partner with
  • Invest in
  • Support
  • Assist

I have started the list but what would you add? Leave a comment and let us know.

Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role.


  1. Thoughtful piece. Words matter. We are a PART of a grantee’s support, but not a partner, at least not the way I understand that word. Still, thinking critically about these relationships with a bit of humility is a good thing!

    • Henry

      Unlike a marriage where you have a single partner, what if we think of partner in the sense of a law or accounting firm, multiple partners each of whom brings something to the table? When we partner with a non-profit we bring a piece of the solution, as do they. Yet we both need to keep the door open, inviting in still more partners to help address the issue(s) at hand.

  2. Frederick Leonhardt

    What Henry is talking about here are what cognitive scientists call “cognitive frames” or “cognitive models.” And, yes, how an issue or relationship is framed is very important. As cognitive linguist (turned political commentator) George Lakoff reminds us, we think using frames and not facts. Here’s a great example (taken from Lakoff’s work) of how framing works:

    Lakoff writes that “tax relief” is a very powerful conservative, “Strict Father” frame. Allow me to unpack this frame a bit so we can see how it operates (cognitive operations that usually take place at an unconscious level):

    • What’s the drama or action of the frame? – The imposition of a tax.

    • Is the action or drama good or bad? – The term “relief” conveys the sense that the action—“imposing taxes”—is bad.

    • Who is bringing about or imposing the bad action or drama? – Liberals. Liberals impose taxes. Liberals wear the black hat in this drama.

    • Who is the target of the bad action or drama? – The general public.

    • Who will “relieve” this pain and suffering? – Conservatives. Conservatives reduce or eliminate taxes. Conservatives wear the white hat in this drama.

    • How will conservatives bring about relief? – Conservatives will reduce or eliminate the burden, the pain, the suffering of taxes.

    It’s quite amazing that two little words—tax relief—can create a frame that then goes on to tell an entire story with bad guys (liberals), good guys (conservatives), an action or drama (the imposition of a burden of taxes), and a resolution to the action or drama (reduction or elimination of taxes). Cognitive science tells us that we are easily drawn to stories and easily bored by data. Again, as Lakoff regularly reminds us, we think using frames (e.g., stories) and not facts.

    Here’s a link to a blog series I wrote with a “cognitive frames” theme to it: “There’s No Such Thing As ‘Doing Good’ ”

    PS – Lakoff suggests that liberals should use the frame “tax revenue” as a way of countering the “tax relief” frame. Lakoff also tells us that by simply negating a frame (i.e., “I don’t believe in tax relief”) we unintentionally make that frame more powerful, not less. As Henry correctly points out, framing is a tricky business.

  3. Henry

    I like thinking about this in terms of “frames” as how each of us frames issues and our discussions about them can impact how others (as well as ourselves) consider things.

    Digging back through some research I found a piece written in 1970 by Robert M.W. Travers that has influenced my thinking for many years. He was writing about learning and perception in educational media, yet his words ring true for those of us in the position to partner with non-profits:

    “As in the building of bridges, the knowledge of the scientist is not likely to produce immediate and dramatic changes in what the practitioner does, but it will affect the practitioner’s entire approach to his problem.”

    For all of us the message might well be that the knowledge from scientist (data) may or may not cause us to make immediate changes, but it should help us frame the issue in ways that allow us to find solutions.

  4. Sheryn Waterman

    I am finishing a book on mentoring and coaching, and I needed better words than mentor/coach-novice/struggling teacher to describe a two-way relationship based on mutuality rather than hierarchy. In other words I needed to avoid words that conveyed a helper and a helpee relationship. With assistance from my copy editor, we agreed on the terms collegial partner and collegial partnerships. Words are important!

    • Henry

      Indeed they are Sheryn! Thanks for the comment.

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