Beyond verbal confusions

Steven Burkeman

When Susan Wilkinson-Maposa researched philanthropy in communities in Southern Africa, she ran into a major problem: there isn’t a word for philanthropy in any of the 11 languages of the region; she was forced instead to use the word help.

When Desmond Tutu went on British radio recently to explain what his new foundation was all about, he ran into a similar problem; it was about ubuntu (loosely translated as ‘I am because you are’), he said – a concept for which there is no single equivalent English word. Again, no single word meaning community currently exists in Russian.

Terms like venture philanthropy, social investment, social capital, corporate social investment, community foundation, social giving, community-based organization and capacity building are in common usage in the UK – do their equivalents exist in Asia or Africa? What about even more basic terms like foundation, grant and charity? What do people working in our sector there think they mean? Do they think they mean what I think they mean? Do other people in the UK even think they mean what I think they mean?

When Bill Drayton calls for a single usage of terms (‘Words matter’, Alliance, June 2007), he is, I suspect, seeking to tidy a world which is inherently untidy, and which is the richer for the untidiness, rather as a meadow full of wild flowers is more beautiful than a carefully cultivated garden. Linguistic tidiness does not have a good record; if it did then Esperanto (a constructed international language developed towards the end of the 19th century) would be in much wider usage than it is. And just whose definitions, meanings and usages are we all going to adopt? Bill’s? Mine? Yours?

But while Bill Drayton’s solution may not work, he has touched on a real problem, as correspondence received by the Editor demonstrates (see p3). It is a problem that impairs understanding and cooperation across language boundaries. In seeking to address it, I think that we have to start from an acceptance that, de facto, for the present at least, the lingua franca of international civil society, or the third sector, or the non-profit world – call it, for these purposes at least, what you will – is English (though, as this sentence demonstrates, it absorbs whatever other influences are necessary to make its point). But I think there are ways in which we could employ English to facilitate much better understanding of the language usages of civil society across the world, and to celebrate those different usages, and the cultural differences they often represent, and to understand and learn from them.

A global philanthropy lexicon

My vision is for a ‘global philanthropy lexicon’ – a powerful website to which people from all over the world would contribute which would explore and link the terminology used around the world of philanthropy and social investment (to adapt Alliance‘s strap line). It will be a gathering place for definitions from around the world of key terms in debate about philanthropy, and explanations of different usages. This virtual space will also be a place where material emerging from around the world on philanthropy and related matters is accessed – material being placed there by those who choose to do so.

It cannot, and should not, be a prescriptive resource along the lines of the Académie française, the body which acts as the official authority on the French language. Rather, it will be an interactive ‘work in progress’ encouraging practitioners and academics to engage with it, to contribute their insights and usages, and to critique those of others – like, for example, Wikipedia, the well-known online encyclopaedia written by web users. Over time, it is hoped that it will at least provide a point of reference for usages in international discourse, whether spoken or via the written word, and a wonderful source of material about philanthropy from all over the world.

What would success look like?

How would one judge its success? There are obvious indicators, such as the number of hits on the website – but more importantly I would hope over time to see the language used in different places being influenced by what goes on in other places. This organic adaptation is a much healthier process than one that forces the adoption of what may come to be seen as the lowest common standard. I am not an expert on linguistics, but my understanding is that the really important thing about the differences in the usages of language between different groups of people is what they say about cultural and other differences. These are distinctions in which we should rejoice, and from which we should learn, rather than trying to persuade each other that one or other particular usage should be adopted universally.

I would also hope to see the site being used as an explicit reference point when philanthropists and philanthropoids try to work across international boundaries. WINGS, NEF, EFC and Synergos, for example, all have to grapple with a situation in which not only are people using English as a second or even third language, but in which people may come from such different backgrounds that – even with a perfect command of English – there is bound to be confusion about the use of particular words, and the concepts and ideas they purport to describe.

My hope, then, is that in discussing our different usages, we will also be learning about the reasons that lie behind them. To come back to Southern Africa: in her study, what Susan Wilkinson-Maposa was finding was that the notion of someone with wealth handing it ‘down’ to someone in need – the ‘normal’ northern model of philanthropy – is unknown in traditional Southern African communities. When people are in need, communities expect to deal with this themselves – to help each other. So the absence of a word which means ‘philanthropy’ in this region is not a mere matter of language – it tells us something very important about the way people live and relate to one another.

The same is true of the word mir in Russian. Olga Alexeeva, Head of CAF Global Trustees, tells us that in pre-revolutionary times there was indeed a single Russian word that meant ‘community’: the word mir, which now means ‘world’ and ‘peace’, also meant ‘community’. But socialism did not have the need for a community, and this meaning of the word disappeared.

Behind the verbal confusions there clearly lies a whole realm of much more significant misunderstandings about other people’s lives and relationships. A global philanthropy lexicon could be a first step towards greater understanding.

Steven Burkeman is a consultant working mainly with foundations and human rights NGOs, and former Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Email

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