Over the last few decades, there has been a remarkable shift in the way that we think and talk about one another. Leaders and advocates from under-represented, under-resourced communities have called for the public to be more mindful of their vocabulary and use of certain labels when discussing various groups. Some see this as a great and ultimately necessary step toward advancing our understanding of one another, while others feel that so-called “PC Culture” infringes on their own ability to express themselves, and that the important details of what is being discussed are passed over for how it is being discussed. The nonprofit sector is caught up in this tension. As human service organizations - and the entities that fund them - it is important for us to interrogate our language and change our behaviors accordingly.
Grants and foundations have historically focused on advancing the lives of those in their community. As with many long-standing institutions, there has been a recent surge of awareness regarding the language that is being used, and the problems in how grantmakers and foundations talk about the communities they are aiming to help. Many industry-favorite descriptors have recently come under fire for their somewhat problematic way of categorizing groups and the implications that these phrases carry. These include terms such like “at-risk”, “disenfranchised”, or “dysfunctional.” Take, for example, the term “at-risk.” Not only is it ambiguous (at risk of what?), but it implies imminent failure, a notion which can have a significant impact on the individual who receives this label. The very people who are labelled as such critique the use of these words, saying they do little, if anything, to acknowledge the origin of the problems in these communities. They seem to suggest that the problems are arbitrary and not connected to larger social dynamics. Because these terms do little to recognize the humans behind the statistics, they reveal - and inadvertently perpetuate - pre-existing prejudices.
Now, some might say in response that it’s not the intention of these words to make anyone uncomfortable, and that the language used isn’t as important as getting the help to the people who need it. Some argue that foundations and grantmakers should be able to classify their grant recipients in language that they choose. For example, if grantmakers can’t define terms to clarify who they want to help, it can make it difficult to create any kind of centralized focus for an organization. Labels can be useful, if uncomfortable, at creating a central focal point. Some grant professionals point out that we should use the funder’s language in proposals. “Speaking their language” and “knowing your audience” are key tenets of successful grant seeking, so even when the terms are problematic, we should use them so that we demonstrate alignment with each funder’s priorities.
While both sides of the argument make strong points, it’s paramount to remember that we’re ultimately on the same team. Grantmakers and foundations, nonprofits, and the populations served by these institutions all share the goal of creating positive change for individuals and in their communities. It is imperative that we find ways to discuss issues that acknowledge their origin and the systematic obstacles that prevent simple, cut and dry solutions. We take the position that sometimes our role as grant seekers is to help educate and influence grant makers to use more responsive language. We believe that if an individual or group wants to use certain labels, and explicitly asks others to stop using certain terms, we should respect their wishes. Even if funders use these terms in their guidelines, we can use our role as grant professionals to re-define them. In fact, it is our duty to do so, on behalf of the communities we are seeking to help!
While grantmakers and foundations are ultimately responsible for how they wish to address the communities they serve, treating the people who will benefit from their aid with dignity and respect should be a top priority. There is a need for language that goes beyond simply describing the current situations of groups, but also acknowledges the history that has created and maintains marginalization and exploitation. Grantmakers need to be sensitive to the groups that they serve and how they wish to be described, and its important to remember that change takes time. In order to facilitate more positive terminology, all those in the nonprofit sector will need to make a conscious effort to create better ways of characterizing individuals and their respective situations. How we label things is important, and pretending it isn’t ultimately does a diservices to both those who need help and those who want to help.
This post was inspired and informed by a discussion thread on the Grant Professionals Association forum. For further reading, please see the following resources recommended by participants: