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#314 The Nuances of Nomenclature – and How They Befuddle Philanthropic Discourse

June 26th, 2018

Richard Marker

Philanthropy education matters to me – a lot. So, not surprisingly, when WINGS-Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaking Support, an international organization of which we are members, undertook a careful look at what is universal or generic vs what is culturally specific, I recommended that one of the ways to get at this is to develop international philanthropy education standards.

Over 16 years ago, when I was invited by NYU to develop a university based professional certificate program, I consulted with the organizations that defined the philanthropy field at that time. There was a remarkable consensus on what a funder, any funder, should know. And thus, with their participation, we developed a set of core competencies as a basis for the certificate credential. [In retrospect, I recognize that my evangelism for the importance of philanthropy education and certification did not have the same priority for those original partners, some of whom expressed exasperation with my impatience. On the chance that some are reading this, my apologies. It has taught me about the mistakes one can make in making assumptions about a sustaining partnership.]

Those concepts, regularly adapted and updated, have been the underpinning of the part of my career as a philanthropy educator. While only a part of my involvement in this field, that educational role has led me to speak and teach in 39 countries, taught funders from 26 countries at NYU and Penn, and has included funders of all types and inclinations.

The core concepts the field developed in 2002 and updated regularly since still make sense. But, make no mistake, they need to be contextualized for every situation. Scandinavia is not Latin America, and neither is Spain like China. Moreover, family funders are all different even as they are all the same. If one appears to be only US-centric, or oblivious to local laws, history, and culture, it will be hard to get to the underlying universal aspects that define decision making.

A recent exchange with the Ben Bellegy, executive director of WINGS, emphasized the complexity of nomenclature. [Our educational arm, Wise Philanthropy Institute, is a member of WINGS.] Our conversation was about the centrality and necessity of educational competencies and credentialing as an integral component to an international infrastructure supporting philanthropy. He responded that, in his view, US philanthropy is qualitatively different than in the rest of the world. He argued that in the USA, our primary emphasis is on grantmaking, while in the rest of the world that is often only an incidental component.

As I have thought about his observation, I have been struck by how much of his observation is not philanthropy behavior per se but about nomenclature. For example, the word “foundation” can have very different legal meanings and therefore radically different ground rules. “Non-profits” and “Non-governmental” organizations are not necessarily synonymous. Not only are they often different kinds of legal entities, depending where one is, but imply very different concepts of what is “normal” and what is “non-…” normal.

Mr. Bellegy’s concern was that using grantmaking competencies as a basis for internationally endorsed credentials is far too American centric. As I thought about it, I realized that I myself had not been using the “grantmaking” label for several years but not because of its American-centrism. I found it too constricting to describe what we do and what we teach. Philanthropy is about a vision of society, an understanding of the totality of ways in which voluntarism can influence the public weal and public policy and engage civil society toward its betterment. Some of that is through traditional grantmaking, but that hardly describes the totality. Different funders will choose a different balance of how they use their own resources, of course, but most use a robust combination. Moreover, the role of how that manifests is very dependent on local culture, history, ethos, and law. In highly taxed, socially supportive societies like most of Scandinavia, the role of philanthropy will be very different that in the USA which only begrudgingly provides educational and human service support to its citizens.

In truth, while much of what we teach might be called grantmaking, at bottom it is about making choices. If we are competent at teaching competencies, those whom we and others teach are better able to make wiser, informed, and ethical decisions about the abundance of challenges and choices before us. Much of that has to do with allocating funds, but it also has to do with advocacy, creativity, influence, convening, leadership, values, and empowerment. Those are universal characteristics of the field of philanthropy, and not restricted to any one nation, region, or religion.

Having said that, cultures do differ. Laws differ. Histories differ. Politics differ. Families differ. To say that there are universal categories that define all philanthropy is too facile. Unless one honors the differences and the contexts in which those differences play out, one can never comfortably or credibly get to the generic range of choices.

Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to conduct an all-day workshop for 100 philanthropists from around the world. No Americans were invited except for me as the facilitator. The subject matter was trends in family philanthropy, and best practices in succession – what some call “next-gen”. At the end of the day, the chair who was from South Africa stated that before we started, he was skeptical that there was anything to learn. However, as the day progressed, he said, he realized that everything I and others talked about described his own family. He had never realized that their own challenges were generic and universal. He was somewhat liberated to know that his family was not the only one facing certain challenges, but that he also realized that his own community challenges required that he approach those challenges with both a general perspective and local sensiTIvIty. He got the message.

I still believe in the indispensability of philanthropy education as a core component of our sector’s credibility and potential. But as this exchange suggests, just agreeing on terms and nomenclature is itself a challenge, and that is even before we agree on the content of the education. The challenge for WINGS, and for all of us who work and act in this sphere is to learn how to articulate and distinguish what is exclusively local, and what is in fact generic. Some of that has to do with nomenclature, some of it has to do with knowledge. Most of all, it has to do with finding ways to help our sector so that we accomplish the impact and the good that we all stand for.

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