Findings from GEO’s Language Survey

  • By Aerial Reese, November 19, 2018

Strengthening the relationship between grantmakers and nonprofits has been fundamental to GEO’s work since our community’s beginning 20 years ago, and it remains a key priority. In fact, in our 2018-2021 strategy, we made a commitment to prioritizing new content on sharing power with and including nonprofits and community members. Broadly, we now call this area of work strengthening relationships, but the language around this has been something that has evolved in our community of grantmakers since GEO’s inception.

As GEO states in our vision for smarter grantmaking, “When we build trust with and tap the knowledge of nonprofits and community members, we amplify each other’s strengths and arrive at better solutions. In order to build these relationships, we need to recognize how our power can create hesitation and tension in our partners — and own the responsibility of creating authentic connections.” Doing so includes a variety of practices, from recruiting nonprofit and community leaders to serve on your board and staff, to creating the time and space needed for relationship building, to sharing power with nonprofit and community members when it comes to making decisions.

In 2018 and 2019, GEO is developing a publication, workshop and conference to help grantmakers think through what it takes to do this work well. As we embarked on the development of these programs, the language around these topics proved tricky. Nonprofit partners told us that phrases like “grantee inclusion” are frustrating because they reinforce power dynamics and define nonprofits by their relationship to a funder. In addition, language that doesn’t encompass both nonprofits and community members doesn’t reflect the entirety of our goals. Other organizations working on similar issues shared their own struggles with the lexicon. So, we reached out to our contacts, including members, other grantmakers and nonprofits, to help inform the language we use moving forward. Below is a summary of the key results of that survey.

Community-driven philanthropy resonated with survey respondents

We received 410 responses to the survey. The survey respondents were approximately 82% grantmakers, 8% other philanthropy-serving organizations and 10% nonprofits, based on the data we are able to collect from email open rates and click-throughs.

Community-driven philanthropy, as a way of describing this topic, resonated with more respondents than did other options. Language that included concepts around participation also had strong response, and several people also suggested language that includes or indicates partnership. In the free response, several people indicated that there doesn’t seem to be a single “right” phrase for this work. As one respondent said, “I wish we could just call this philanthropy. We have an ideal that philanthropy should reflect all of these things that aren’t easily reduced to a simple phrase. Maybe we should use philanthropy for the good and effective approaches above and redefine philanthropy that doesn’t strive for these targets as unresponsive philanthropy.”

What we call this concept matters far less than what we do

Several respondents indicated that it matters more to them that the field walks the talk than finding the right words to describe this concept. As one respondent said, “I appreciate the effort in embedding intention and philosophy in a name, but making simple, easy-to-understand processes and taking the time to educate those who are new to grants is the most equitable thing we can do.” This sentiment was echoed by several respondents. Given the nature of the work we do, GEO has to have a concrete way of referring to this topic, but it is important to not let perfect be the enemy of good and stand in the way of real work.

Nonprofit respondents, where they were identifiable, also made the case for this importance of actions over language. As one person shared, “This is almost an exercise that can keep happening that won’t be solved. There are real and legitimate issues of power surrounding race and broader equity. It certainly isn’t about language of the funders and those who have the social capital to work for a nonprofit….How we treat people we work in partnership with is far more significant than titles.” It is important to be intentional about language, but it is more important to walk our talk.

Language around partnership, participation and community-driven philanthropy seems to resonate the most with survey respondents. GEO sees opportunities to call this body of work community-driven philanthropy while using words like partnership, participation and power to describe what it takes to do this work well. No matter where we land, we will need to be clear about what we mean, and grantmakers need to align words and actions to demonstrate a true commitment to change. Stay tuned for more information on GEO’s upcoming programs on this topic, and let us know what you think.