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Intersectionality…and Other Jargon in the Philanthropy Sector – Updated

March 29th, 2017

Richard Marker

We recently spoke with an NFP executive who was becoming skeptical about the value of doing a strategy process. He had been charged by a funder with updating his organization’s strategy. He had several models in front of him, had heard about strategic planning, strategic framing, and who knows what other formulations. Each one has a meaning, and different consultants have their own approaches. Many methodologies can be effective, but none are fully coherent without explanations, and not all are appropriate in every context. Developing strategies for foundations, philanthropists, non-profits, or private businesses can be a very useful exercise but the words “strategic planning” by themselves are jargon. No wonder this executive was a bit of a skeptic.

I suspect that most would agree that the winner of the jargon word of the decade is “impact.” Seven or eight years ago I taught the first of several advanced week-long courses for funders and foundation professionals on “impact philanthropy.” I invited a variety of experts in the field to co-present. I knew that they each had very different approaches from one another, but, at the time, each was quite sure that his or her own understanding was the definitive one. Investment models, outcomes, theories of change, PRI’s, policy advocacy – all used the term “impact”. No wonder there are so many conferences and webinars and courses and newsletters all telling about “Impact.” When you need that many conferences just to explain what you mean, that is jargon.

There are all sorts of words that we hear in our field: metrics, evidence based, disruption, catalytic, bandwidth, partnership, so many more…. Each can be misunderstood, and each can have connotations that only the cognoscenti can fully comprehend. When that is the case, why not try to speak in non jargonese? Why not try English [or whatever language you actually use where you live and work]?

Which brings us to “intersectionality”. It is the word of the year. I have heard it in complex and sophisticated syntax articulated by philanthropoids far and wide.

For some, it is a political statement defining the interwoven nature of how the powerful maintain control over the powerless. It posits that if one doesn’t address this inequity as a totality, one is a perpetrator of injustice. Not honoring any single part of that complex whole disrespects, the entirety.

For others, the word is more descriptive and less proscriptive. It suggests that to address and redress systemic issues, one must incorporate an understanding of how different sectors, and subsectors are integrated. No single sector, government, business, NGO/NFP, or philanthropist has the capability by itself to solve these issues, and no single topic within those systemic issues is sufficient.

The challenge of the word, of course, is that unless one explains what one means, it is not clear. Moreover, and even more significant for our field, it in no way makes clear what one actually does with either interpretation to make a difference.

By the way, “making a difference” is also jargon. It is appealing for funders but by itself is not very descriptive even though we hear it all the time.

As a regular attendee at philanthropy conferences and wealth management briefings, I see how easy it is for practitioners to slip into facile shorthand often incomprehensible to those not well traveled in these fields. And as a quondam professor of philanthropy, I see how easy it is for academics to slip into that special brand of polysyllabic and grandiloquent discourse only used in the Ivory Tower. [I hope you got that last sentence was self-mocking.]

I have been guilty of both and have been called on them. I have learned the hard way.

That is why we work hard to make ourselves understood, our ideas coherent and our approach pragmatic. There is no reason that one needs to indulge in jargon to communicate complex ideas. And there is every reason to affirm that clear communication helps our grantees, our clients, our colleagues, and ultimately our field as a whole.


After this was first published, some of the feedback showed that some readers thought that I was suggesting that “jargon” means the absence of substantive meaning. Quite the contrary: jargon emerges because it becomes a shorthand for ideas that matter. To take but two examples:

My own professional work is as a strategist for philanthropists and foundations: surely I believe that it has substance. I do, though, urge that people explain what we/they mean by that, what methodologies we and others use, and how it applies in a particular context.

Similarly, “impact” has acquired a series of useful meanings. The High Impact methodology that the Penn CHIP program has developed can be a very productive tool for funders who want to choose an optimal way to bring about change in a particular field. On the hand, foundations use impact investment strategies as a tool to make financial resources more effectively align with their mission and raison d’etre. Here too there are a number of applied approaches that are changing the way philanthropic dollars are invested.

The point of the piece is that the words that become jargon assume that the meanings are obvious. All too often they aren’t and the use of the jargon can obfuscate. Thus the plea for less jargon and more clarity.

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