Addressing Inequities in Philanthropy by Improving Our Approach to Language and Communication

By Amy Agarwal, Principal Writer, Editor, and Designer

A couple of years ago, when we first launched our language refresh initiative, we began by establishing organizational Principles of Language (also available in French), which we intentionally introduced with a note that “language both conveys and shapes our thinking” and is critical in helping us “effect the changes we wish to see in the world.” We further explained that careful use of language—including language that is accurate, inclusive, and sensitive—is the responsibility of everyone across the organization. Since then, we have published a series of six language guides, each focusing on a different subject area relevant to our programming. This year we have decided to explore language somewhat differently, by focusing on a particular audience rather than a technical topic.

While our earlier language guides sought to unpack different technical areas, they all aimed primarily to support the development of materials for healthcare providers, technical experts, and policy makers who bring an established understanding of our sector. Our latest language guide, in contrast, serves to support communications with our community of philanthropic supporters, which is simultaneously more limited and more diverse than the audiences of prior guides. This audience is more limited in that it centers on those residing in the United States and Europe (from whom our financial and legal operations allow us to solicit contributions); however, it is more diverse as it includes those who have been supporting EngenderHealth for years (decades even) and therefore bring some understanding of our work as well as those who may be new to us but are curious to learn more about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender equality. An important constant, however, is that we are continuing to dismantle outdated language and facilitate more equitable communication in order to help foster the change we wish to see in the world.

Philanthropy from Antiquity to Modernity

Before discussing how we envision language evolving within the context of our philanthropic partners, it is worth understanding how the field of philanthropy itself has evolved. Fellow word-nerds will hopefully appreciate this mini-lesson from Merriam-Webster: The word philanthropy originated in late Latin (philanthropia) and ancient Greek (philanthrōpia), with the Greek form translating literally to “loving people.” Fans of Greek mythology may also recall the story of Prometheus, the god (and philanthrope!) who Zeus punished for giving fire to humankind—a story which some credit as part of the philanthropy origin story. However, the first known use of the word comes from 1623—400 years ago, this year—rather serendipitous as I write this!

The evolution of modern philanthropy is associated with the schism that occurred in Europe circa the reformation, with the Catholic church emphasizing the act of giving alms while the Protestant church began focusing on the impact of charity (Davies 2017). Philanthropy then expanded to include a more secular form as urbanization created space for giving beyond the immediate parish and as fear of unrest resulting from inequality became a concern (Davies 2017). In the United States, similar brands of philanthropy commenced in the colonial era and have advanced to the organized, professional, global structure that we see today. A common theme throughout this evolution, however, is the entrenched moralistic view and the perpetual power imbalance between those who give and those who receive. This imbalance has played—and continues to play—an important role in shaping both language and programming.

Note: This much-abbreviated retelling of modern philanthropy focuses on aspects of history most directly tied to philanthropy at EngenderHealth. It is absolutely imperative to recognize that resource sharing is not limited to Western civilization—but rather exists in every culture in some form or fashion (Lee 2023).

An Evolving Lexicon for Philanthropy

Before considering necessary language shifts for our philanthropic communications, we must unpack how the aforementioned power imbalance has shaped the lexicon. This starts with acknowledging the antiquated approaches to communication and archaic terminology that we wish to dispel—including language with questionable connotations as well as narratives that are explicitly exploitative. Additionally, while early “organization-centric” approaches (“look at what we’re doing…give us money” [emphasis added]) shifted to more “donor-centric” approaches (“You could be a hero in this child’s life” [emphasis added]), the current movement aims to center those impacted by the work (Glaros 2019). (Note the similarity to the previous discussion around the emphasis on giving alms versus impact of charity!) Theoretically, this may be a welcome change; however, it is not necessarily without (potential) flaw. For instance, I’m reminded of commercials from my youth that centered on visibly malnourished children and abused animals (cue Sally Struthers and Sarah McLachlan!). Thus, even if we move away from biased narratives that portray the philanthropic community as virtuous saviors, the risk of objectifying and stereotyping, and even potentially degrading and patronizing, impact populations as passive recipients of assistance remains.

We must carefully reconsider our relationships with our philanthropic partners and with our impact populations and we must recognize that we all exist within a constellation of privilege. This includes recognizing that the communities we support exist within a legacy of discriminatory systems and practices but have agency and are active participants in our programs; and, similarly, that our supporters are not simply writing checks for the sake of salvation but because they wish to contribute to a more equitable global society. We have a responsibility to employ language that demonstrates appropriate appreciation for our supporters and simultaneously amplifies the agency of our impact populations. Updating language is a critical step in refreshing attitudes and approaches and unraveling the historically transactional nature of philanthropy. This is why we (and many peer organizations) have eradicated terms such as “beneficiary” and, with our latest language guide, we are now replacing other terms to reflect the change we wish to see within the philanthropy sector.

Philanthropy at EngenderHealth

EngenderHealth has benefited from philanthropic contributions since our earliest incarnations, and we are grateful for the many who established an initial foundation of support and those who have continued to contribute to our work as we have evolved as an organization and a sector. Further, while we have maintained some traditions from our early days, our approaches to fundraising have evolved and we have expanded our base of supporters to an increasingly diverse group, just as our programming has changed throughout our history. For instance, there are now many ways to support EngenderHealth that were simply not possible before. However, a more important shift, at least in my view, is how our communications with our supporters are evolving—from the conversations our philanthropy staff have with individual supporters to the more formal remarks that we make at events or statements that we include in emails, newsletters, and other written correspondence with this audience.

We are privileged to have a base of support that cares deeply about SRHR and gender equality and that is eager to learn about our work and our impact. And, as the current political situation in the US has fomented visibility for SRHR, we have the opportunity to leverage this awareness to reach new audiences. But this opportunity brings responsibility. Specifically, as leaders in the global SRHR space, it is our responsibility to use our platforms ethically, including by employing language that is nonjudgmental and destigmatizing, and deliberately and explicitly inclusive of the diversity of our impact populations, and by providing accurate information in ways that help our supporters learn about our work. For instance, aligning with our organizational value of integrity, we are committed to sharing information that reflects our expertise, activities, and impact honestly and in ways that educate and engage our supporters, without exaggerating or sensationalizing our work. This is particularly imperative in the age of misinformation and disinformation that has especially wreaked havoc in the public health sector in recent years.

Additionally, we recognize that our supporters contribute more than money. While the funding we receive is incredibly important to advancing our work, we are equally appreciative of those who have contributed their expertise, networks, and time, for instance, by attending our events and testifying about the value of our programs as well as advising us on how we can better engage them and other potential supporters. But to support EngenderHealth in all these different ways, we need this community understand our work—including what we do, how we do it, and why we do it—and an important component of facilitating this understanding comes from the language that we use in our own communications. This includes recognizing that our supporters may not be public health practitioners or gender experts and therefore avoiding unnecessarily academic, clinical, or technical terminology to ensure we are communicating effectively. However, we must balance that approach with respecting that our supporters not only have the capacity but also the interest in learning and advancing with us. This requires us to adopt a nuanced and evolving approach to our communications with this audience. One way we are hoping to do this is by establishing accessible explanations for a selection of common technical terms that will hopefully be of use for staff and supporters alike.  

Collaborating for Equity in Communication

In a previous blog, I wrote about becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, and how evolving our language requires emotional energy to challenge our own privilege and associated ignorance. In another blog, I noted that inclusion is a core value for our organization and discussed how using inclusive language requires us to learn, unlearn, and evolve to adapt to the constant change occurring in the world around us. And, I’ve acknowledged more than once that all of this can be a bit daunting. However, I have also shared how a culture of collaboration can ease this process and I reassert this as I reflect on the conversation I had with the philanthropy team at EngenderHealth about how we want to advance our language and communication, a conversation in which everyone actively and openly contributed ideas and questions with the shared objective of learning and doing better in the future. Now, dear readers, we invite you to reflect with us, learn with us, and share your own approaches for advancing more equitable structures for philanthropy. Because, in the end, we all want a better future and we all must work together to achieve that future—and that starts with how we speak with one another.

Explore all of our Language Guides here.