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Talking about your ‘theory of change’ may not help make your point. Sergio Mendoza Hochmann/Moment via Getty Images

Foundations are using so many confusing words that few people can figure out what they’re doing

The United States has the largest philanthropic sector in the world. Foundations and similar grantmakers have US$1.5 trillion in assets and disburse more than $100 billion annually to everything from hospitals and museums to making communities more walkable and improving care at the end of life.

Many foundations task in-house and outside communications experts with helping the public learn about their grantmaking and its impact. And yet polling indicates that few people know what foundations do or how philanthropy affects their lives.

We are communications scholars who research ways that organizations seeking to bring about social change can harness behavioral, social and cognitive science. With our colleagues Yu-Hao Lee, Kate Ratliff and Jack Barry, we recently studied whether stories that clearly convey how foundations make decisions about what to fund could build trust with the public and help people understand them better.

Teaming up with the Council on Foundations, a philanthropy organization, we surveyed nearly 3,600 Americans. We identified two ways foundations could do a better job of communicating with the public: tell better stories about how they decide which projects to fund, and explain their goals and the results of their work more clearly using simpler language.

Philanthro-speak’s perils

Every field has its own jargon – technical language that most people don’t comprehend. Philanthropy is no exception.

As part of this study, we also interviewed communications professionals who work in the field. One communication professional we interviewed called foundations’ unique jargon “philanthro-speak.” It includes some tax language, such as referring to charities as 501(c)(3)s, a technical term alluding to a passage in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, vague metaphors borrowed from the military, sports and finance, and an array of unfamiliar abbreviations such as DAF, which stands for donor-advised funds, and RFP, shorthand for “request for proposals.”

It also includes vague terms that make nouns into verbs, like “center” and “partner.” None of this helps people understand what foundations do, how they make decisions or how they help resolve conditions such as poverty or inequity.

If you work at a foundation or frequently deal with them, you can follow along when you read or hear “awardee” or “theory of change.”

Otherwise, those words and phrases are probably abstract and meaningless to you. Speaking in code, we argue, can cause real harm because it hampers the ability of funders to build trust with the communities they serve.

Philanthro-speak is so common that McSweeney’s, a popular humor blog, has parodied mission statements in a post titled, “We dare you to figure out what our nonprofit does.”

“We tell a story of innovation that raises awareness of critical issues,” the post riffs. “Then we drown that story in jargon no one understands.”

Problem identification, root cause analysis and solving problem, businessman with magnifier and investigate incident with exclamation mark.
How you tell a story can illuminate or confuse your audience. Diki Prayogo/iStock via Getty Images Plus

What makes metaphors work well

We recommend that foundations use clear definitions, choose more accurate metaphors and tell detailed stories about their work.

Technical terms can mystify the very nonprofits that foundations might want to support, leaving them uncertain whether they should apply for a grant and unable to deftly apply for one. If there’s a need for them to understand and use a specific term, such as “capacity building” – investing in an organization’s current and future effectiveness – then it’s best to define it in context.

Metaphors can anchor an abstract concept to a concrete, real-world reference. But it is important to question what they imply and whether they aid comprehension.

We suggest that foundations stop borrowing metaphors from other fields that aren’t illustrative or helpful. Specifically, they should avoid using military metaphors to describe their support by saying things like, “We are funding the people on the front lines.”

Some of the metaphors that foundations favor can reinforce unequal power dynamics between them and the groups they support. Saying that they are “giving folks a seat at the table” conveys the notion that funders have power and those receiving their money must work to meet their expectations – rather than focus on fulfilling their mission by serving the needs of their communities.

We believe that this kind of wording encourages organizations seeking grants to adopt language and storytelling practices they think will make their funders happy – rather than relaying stories about how they make their communities better.

We tested seven categories of metaphors that foundations use to see which ones resonated most with Americans. These included zero-sum metaphors from war or sports such as “funding the people on the front lines,” which suggest that people are competing for scarce resources. Where there are winners, these metaphors imply, there must also be losers.

We also assessed metaphors for abundance that relate to construction or the natural environment, such as “flowing” and “building.” These types of metaphors are useful because they depict change as an opportunity for everyone to grow and work together.

Abundance metaphors such as flowing or building resonated equally well as zero-sum or more neutral ones. The difference comes in how they describe the relationships that foundations have with the organizations they support.

Since there is no loss in choosing an abundance metaphor, we believe foundations should opt for the metaphors that more accurately describe their work.

Stories worth telling

Many communications professionals rely on storytelling – rooting an idea in a real-life example and emotion – to draw attention to their organizations’ accomplishments.

We found many formulaic stories and narratives that skipped straight to a solution, suggesting that it arose through magic rather than hard work. Even some of the best stories we reviewed about the results of funding from foundations lacked details about how communities actually achieved their goals or solved a problem.

We found that including nitty-gritty details, such as how foundations make decisions and what nonprofits pay for with foundation dollars, significantly increase Americans’ trust in philanthropy and reduce their concerns about foundations. We think one news story about a Philadelphia-based program got the job done with details about what every person and organization involved did to make it succeed.

The article begins by highlighting a problem: Federal rules do not allow people to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to buy hot food. The Community Grocer, a nonprofit, is opening a grocery store this year that will allow people to legally bypass these restrictions with its hot, SNAP-eligible and healthy meals.

The story in this news article, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, works not just because it offers a potential solution, but because the reporter also highlights the steps everyone is taking to make that fix possible – the program’s founders, community leaders, a local chef, the University of Pennsylvania and local foundations. And it emphasizes that all of them are making decisions together.

Foundations’ vast financial resources give them the power to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. But their habit of using abstract language and jargon leaves most Americans with little understanding of what the sector does or how to approach a foundation for support on issues that matter most in their own communities.

In turn, we believe this problem is making it harder for many worthy causes to get the funding they urgently need and may even impede progress on the missions to which foundations devote themselves.

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