Summertime, and the Words are Buzzing

Tommer Peterson

Reading the journals, blogs, and press in the philanthropic sector, one would think there is a conspiracy afoot to create meaningless buzzwords. Somewhere in a secret underground laboratory, teams of evil linguists work overtime coining new words and phrases designed to bewilder grantwriters and obfuscate funders' true intentions—a covert operation designed to keep grant money from being awarded.

It would be cool if this were true, but I am inclined to think otherwise.

What people tend to call “buzzwords” are often simply terms they are tired of hearing without a clear shared definition of what they mean. Technically, a buzzword is a term that has specific meaning in a specialized field but that has migrated into popular use, losing its original precise meaning in the process. “Bandwidth” is an excellent example of this. Bandwidth is a measurement of the speed of digital data transfer, measured in bits per second. In popular use, however, it has come to mean “capacity.” I don't think such-and-such organization has the bandwidth to take on a capital campaign right now.

At the heart of the philanthropic transaction is a simple exchange of ideas. Funders communicate their values, interests, processes, and parameters, and grant seekers respond with descriptions of their mission, plans, aspirations, and their … logic model … theory of change … quantitative evaluation matrix. Uh-oh. There we are. The fact that so much of this relationship hinges on written exchanges may make our field more susceptible to infestations of buzzwords, or, perhaps more aptly, poorly defined terms.

Philanthropy often borrows vocabulary from the growing academic field of nonprofit management, and academics are champs at generating new vocabulary. There is a parallel assimilation of words—buzz or not—from the technology, social networking, and other fields as well. As vocabulary migrates from one discipline to another, meanings easily evolve and change, and the words begin to buzz. An easy step that funders can take is simply to define terms in program descriptions, application guidelines, and reporting requirements. If you are asking for an organization's “logic model,” define what “logic model” means to you.

“Theory of change” was one of the top buzzwords in my informal poll, yet it is not a buzzword at all. This is well-defined phrase. There are books, websites, conferences, blogs, and discussion groups, as well as diagrams with circles and arrows illustrating theory of change. A Google search brought up more than two hundred thousand links. So why do some funders cite it as an annoying buzzword? Could it be that they simply haven't looked at the definition?

Here's the Skoll Foundation's definition in case you want to steal it: A theory of change is a strategy or blueprint for achieving large-scale, long-term goals. It identifies the preconditions, pathways and interventions necessary for an initiative's success.

Lucy Bernholz crowned “social entrepreneurs” as a major buzzword earlier this year,1 noting, “In 2000 few people had ever heard of social entrepreneurs…. Forget the fact that no one can agree on a common definition, social entrepreneurs are still the hottest game in town and the buzzword of the decade.” Also on Lucy's list was “Celebvocates.” Enough said.

On the other hand, sometimes creating a name for something provides a way to bring an idea to the table that was previously not visible. An excellent example is the work that Craig McGarvey and Dudley Cocke did a few years back placing the idea of the “power dynamic” in philanthropy into the national discussion. Putting a name on it gave people permission to talk about what was previously a somewhat forbidden topic. Some may have seen it as a buzzword, but it provided a needed opening for rich conversation between funders and grantees.

GIA is not immune to generating buzz about terminology itself. Last fall we launched the National Capitalization Project, and were more than a little surprised about the many divergent definitions of “capitalization” there were floating around. Even though we thought we clearly and carefully defined what we meant by “capitalization,” change came hard.

In a highly unscientific buzzword poll, I asked funders what “capitalization” meant. Here are some of their responses:

[Capitalization] would be laying some money on nonprofits.

I would think capitalize is about the same, finding hard money where there is none.

Capitalization = the financial resources that may include but also go beyond project-based funding that enable organizations to meet mission.

What it really means: survival of whomever funders deem the fittest.

So, all that said, it is time to head back to the secret underground laboratory and get back to work!

1. “Philanthropy's Buzzwords of the Past Decade Show How Nonprofits Are Changing,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, January 3, 2011 (