Grantmaking is surrounded by words. Words describe overall missions and goals; they explain criteria and application processes to grantseekers; they describe all of the lessons learned along the way. A pithy phrase might seem to go straight to the heart of what you want to say about your grants program, but be careful: sometimes the words and phrases that seem the most attractive to you can seem meaningless at best and misleading at worst to your readers.
What's the problem?
Words can lose their meaning when they become over-used or misused. For example, grantmaking is often described as having a "social change" imperative. Philanthropy expert and academic Dr Michael Liffman has observed that social change is "pretty much an unchallengeable orthodoxy of the field".
While the terms "social change" and "innovation" are bandied about, grantmakers' motivations and the outcomes they achieve are often more varied than a "social change" focus would suggest. Social change is not the only or even necessarily the best way of changing the world.
Grantseekers can produce whole lists of words they consider to be overused and meaningless, words such as diversity, conceptualise, scale and resources.
When Our Community asked community group members to nominate their most hated words and phrases, they came up with these: incentivising; synergies; going forward; can-do culture; 360-degree feedback; working families; moving forward; paradigm; promulgate; and disconnect.
Consider, too, the experience of grantseekers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities: if something is meaningless, confusing or misleading to someone whose first language is English, it is even more so for someone who has English as their second or third language.
What can we do about it?
- Keep your own list of jargon - words you hear being over-used or that you notice have become particularly popular. If you're aware of them, you'll think twice before using them yourself.
- Think about your audience as you write. If you have a grantseeker from a small community group in mind, or someone for whom English is a second language, you're less likely to use jargon that's filtered through from the corporate world.
- Once you've finished writing, read your work out loud. It can sound very different from the way it looks on paper.
- If there are words you're not sure about, have a serious think about the meaning you're trying to convey and whether those words are really doing the job.