Are You Driving Your Staff (and Grantees) to Drink?

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Get rid of vague terms and confusing philanthropy jargon forever.

In my line of work, I pick up a lot of interesting stories from the front lines of the foundation world. Some are inspiring, some heart-wrenching, and others downright funny. This one made me want to both laugh and cry simultaneously.

A foundation leader told me that he and his staff were fed up with the amount of philanthro-speak that appeared in foundation documents — especially in the foundation’s grant guidelines. Vague terms like “innovative,” “equity,” “empowerment,” “disruption,” “intersectionality,” “sustainability,” “collective impact,” “best practices,” and “systemic,” were rife within the guidelines document. Grantees, confounded by the language, attempted to make up for their lack of clarity by peppering those same vague terms throughout their proposals back to the foundation, hoping that they struck what sounded like a common chord of understanding.

Neither funder nor applicants were clear about what those terms meant in the context of the foundation’s grantmaking, and so they batted them back and forth like badminton shuttlecocks.

Foundation staff sought clarity on these terms from senior leadership and trustees, to no avail. It was enough to drive the foundation staff to drink — literally! To blow off steam and poke fun at their frustration, staff took a batch of old grant proposals, each chose a jargon keyword, took turns reading the proposals aloud, and took a drink each time their chosen keyword was voiced.

While this may have helped the staff blow off steam and have some fun with a frustrating experience, of course it didn’t solve the problem. They were still frustrated by jargon. And you can just imagine the frustration felt by the grant applicants who struggled to respond to that jargon while trying to explain the importance of their work.

How can this funder and others avoid the need for drinking games?

  1. Take a hard look at your language. Pull together your staff – or better yet, your grantees – to comb through your grant guidelines to find the jargon. Then get rid of it and replace it with words that readers can easily understand.
  2. Know what you mean. Vague terms often appear because we aren’t completely sure what we mean or how to explain our ideas to others. If you can’t explain it clearly, then chances are you haven’t thought it through completely. If that’s the case, it’s better to say, “We’re still learning what this means and welcome your ideas,” than to simply throw in a complicated or vague term and hope for the best.
  3. Ban jargon forever. Appoint a squad of “jargon police” in your office who are empowered to stop vague and confusing language in its tracks, now and forever!

© 2018 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for almost 20 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.

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“Kris is great at making the complex easy to understand, and helps grantmakers shift their thinking to embrace new possibilities and opportunities. Her presentations to our board and grantmakers association were engaging, informative and inspiring, and have set us all on a clearer path toward effectiveness.”

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