Of course we don’t discuss charitable giving: there’s no decent term for it

Language shapes how we think. No clear language: no clear thinking

What is this thing that we do? “Deploying money, time and other resources to achieve positive social and environmental change”. A snappy phrase, don’t you think??

I’ve been talking a lot recently about this (‘this’ being ‘deploying money, time….’), and am frustrated at the absurd length of the sentences I get into because… there’s no verb for this. What do you call it? I’m VERY interested to hear your ideas. I’ve heard several verbs used, all of which are pretty unhelpful & misleading in my experience:

“Giving” is too passive for what I mean. I give you a book at Christmas largely to signal that I like you. Sure, I hope that you’ll read and like it, but I’m not primarily trying to educate you. If you don’t read it, but nonetheless get joy from my having bothered to give it to you, that’s great. “It’s the thought that counts”, as all our mothers told us: the value is in the act of giving, rather than the ‘results’ – which I why I don’t audit your knowledge on the book a month later. It’s yours – to do with as you will. If you want to burn it, or “re-gift it”, that’s totally up to you. But not so with ambitious charitable giving: I don’t “give” time to the children’s charity of which I’m a trustee. I invest or deploy or use that time to help the children – I give through the charity. It’s not the thought that count: it’s the results.

“Giving it away” is even worse. It implies that the recipient is ‘away’ – distant from you. Carnegie was wrong: it isn’t, as he claimed, “more difficult to give money away than it was to make it”: all you need to do succeed at ‘giving money away’ is to stand in the street and dish it out. You won’t need long. Ambitious charitable giving isn’t about a recipient who’s ‘away’ – it’s about a recipient or cause that you care about, and hence you’re very interested in them doing a good job. Carnegie needed our missing verb: I suspect he meant that “it’s harder to deploy this money in such a way that it achieves positive social and environmental change”, which probably is harder than making it.

“Investing” is just confusing, because it’s so commonly used to mean something totally different (ie, deploying money to generate a financial gain). I don’t invest money in a human rights campaign: I have no expectation of seeing that money again – let alone with a profit – because the campaign has no mechanism for generating revenue.

“Donating” is possible, but also rather passive. Associated with loose change or taking clothes to second-hand shops, it hardly implies expectation of significant change, or holding the “don-ee” accountable.

It matters that there’s no term for it. Any passing socio-linguist will confirm that language shapes how we think – people normally only perceive things for which they have words, and the words signal what’s important. Hindi has different words for ‘elder brother’ and ‘younger brother’ because the difference matters.

However can we create a culture where people “use money and other resources to achieve positive social and environmental change” well (as opposed to badly) if we can’t even speak about it?

And by the way, it matters that there’s no verb. I happen to think that there’s no decent noun for this stuff either*, but even if there were, we’d still need a verb. “I’d like to [insert non-existent verb] better”, “this course / book / article will help you …. better”, “we’ve learnt so much from sport or business about how to [insert non-existent verb] well”, “they’ve made a great innovation in non-existent verb-ing.”

Ambitious charitable giving: what do you call yours?


*These nouns include philanthropy, venture philanthropy, philanthrocapitalism. There are (in my view) good reasons to steer clear of these: (a)hardly anybody can spell them! (b)nobody, apart from philanthro-niks ever uses them, and (c)they’re horribly ill-defined. Often people discuss them at complete cross-purposes because they’re using them to refer to quite different things.

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