The Deep Importance of Language in Philanthropy

Hilary Pearson

How much does language matter to philanthropy? Deeply, as it turns out. A stimulating piece by Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation on the uses and misuses of philanthropic language got me thinking recently about how much it affects us.

I can’t count the number of times that I have seen the word “philanthropy” defined in various articles and books. While people can agree on its linguistic derivation, and that this derivation points to both goodwill and humanity, beyond this the application of the word is very broad. It is used to describe small gifts and large ones, almsgiving and social change, institutional and personal giving, social obligation and elite display, public and private interest. It has both positive and negative connotations, both engaging and exclusive elements. It is about both transactions and relations, about the exercise of power and the creation of equity, about spending and investing, about amassing and disbursing. What a remarkably elastic term!

Its elasticity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It can be adopted to fit many different activities. But it also creates difficulties for policy makers and regulators who want to define and control it. So, they revert to more technocratic and legal language. In Canada, as in other jurisdictions, for reasons of history and policy our policy makers and regulators, as well as lawyers, do not think about the broad universe of “philanthropy” but about the narrow world of “charity”. They use the term “charity” to define both the activity of giving and the organizations which pursue missions deemed to be charitable. Many of the terms that we might use to describe the context and work of philanthropy are not to be found in law. The key federal statute that governs philanthropic and charitable organizations is the Income Tax Act. What this means in practice is that the lexicon of government regulation constrains thinking and understanding of the practice of philanthropy to a narrow focus on the transaction of the charitable gift. The language of the law and regulation focuses on a giver and a receiver, on the disbursement of funds to “qualified donees”, on the conditions that permit and shape a donation.

Why does this matter? Because if those who practice philanthropy are caught up in the language used by government and law, they too will focus on the transaction and its conditions rather than on the relations and the impact of what they do. Language shapes our mindset. As Davies points out in his piece, “many of the words we use are laden with historical baggage, and carry implications about the nature of philanthropy and the relationship between giver and receiver that shape our approaches even if we are not aware they are doing so.” He cites the implications of using words like “grantee” and “beneficiary” with their hidden connotations of passivity, recipient of largesse, implied gratitude, and of course the underlying imbalance in power between giver and receiver. If the activity of philanthropy is described as grantmaking, and the measure of philanthropy is the disbursement quota, then we limit ourselves hugely in terms of our thinking about the roles and value of philanthropy.

Similarly, if the focus of philanthropy’s regulators is on the transaction and the accountability of philanthropy is defined as its management of the transaction, then the practice of philanthropy narrows and excludes. Must all grants automatically require applications and reports? Must communication between grantor and grantee be in written form? Must certain costs and certain activities be avoided because they are not defined as charitable? Does our language of transactions and accounts inhibit the creative and expansive appreciation of philanthropic action?

Davies suggests that “the language we use not only describes our world but fundamentally shapes our ability to experience it. Not having the right words doesn’t just mean that we cannot convey the full richness and value of civil society, but that we may not even be able to grasp it in the first place.” In the Canadian context, we can reflect on the meaning that languages other than English can bring to our understanding of philanthropy. In French, the word “bienfaisance” is used as a translation of “charity” when it comes to applications of the federal law to the definition of what is charitable. But in practice, the charitable sector in Quebec does not define itself around the term “bienfaisance” but more often around the term “communautaire”, putting the accent on collectivity, acting together to change or improve community or society. The idea of an “economie sociale”, of co-operative action for mutual benefit is more familiar to francophones than the concepts of charity or “bienfaisance”. These are more relational than transactional terms. Similarly, in Indigenous languages the term “philanthropy” would not be familiar; the Indigenous worldview and spiritual and cultural practice are based on reciprocal exchange of giving and receiving, of being in relation. Languages reflect the underlying assumptions and ways of thinking about the world and about how to act in it.

I agree with a final comment made by Rhod Davies: “Broadening our linguistic horizons [in philanthropy] is vital. It can help us to move away from reliance on forms of language and communication that entrench asymmetries of power, or which privilege certain forms of experience over others…it may even help us to experience our world differently (or at least understand the different ways in which others might experience it)…This is clearly important in the present, but it is perhaps even more so as we look to the future because limitations of language may become limitations on our ability to imagine alternative ways for our society and world to be.”

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