Vague words and worn-out clichés help neither grantmakers nor grant recipients. As far back as the 1830s, the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville warned that Americans have a weakness for “abstract terms.” Such terms are more than annoying, they’re potentially damaging, warns Tony Proscio in Bad Words for Good: the “persistent culprit behind the civic world’s loss of stature may be the way it sounds.” Michael A. Bailin, president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that supports Proscio’s work, admonishes peers that philanthropic jargon “is almost universally criticized as the soulless, devitalized, pretentious means we use to confuse words with things, opinions with truths, intentions with results.”
Philanthropy here excerpts selections from Proscio’s books In Other Words and Bad Words for Good in hopes his pithy insights can help all of us sharpen our thinking and writing.
Paradigm: Foundations can hardly bear primary blame for the relentless spread of this muddy word. Its popularity has grown in direct proportion to the watering down of its meaning, which was never exactly concrete to begin with, and has grown with every new use. By now the word is indistinguishable from more honest (if less thrillingly Greek) terms like “pattern,” “structure,” “formula,” or “model.” Philosophers may still retain some rigor in their use of “paradigm.” It was their laboratory, after all, from which the word first escaped, never to be recaptured. T.S. Kuhn gave it a seemingly permanent mystique in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when he used it to describe the web of accepted theories through which scientists normally regard their subject. By Kuhn’s definition, a paradigm is the set of inherited preconceptions, the “glass darkly” through which even the most scrupulous inquirer habitually views the world. When someone shatters the glass—as Einstein did with his theory of relativity, for example—everyone is forced to ask questions differently, and to view the challenges of science and philosophy in a new way. Presto: a paradigm shift. Kuhn’s idea was a dazzle of clarity compared with the uses the word has been put to in modern public policy and philanthropy. Because people in those fields often hope to change inherited ideas, practically anything they touch turns to paradigms. Small wonder that little or no clarity has come from that morass. For anyone genuinely intent on a scientific revolution, Rule No. 1 might be: Find a more concrete word with which to state your case, and shift away from “paradigm.”
Utilize: The word actually has a meaning of its own, different from “use.” But you’d never know it, with the near-universal tendency of formal writing to describe every use as a “utilization.” Strictly speaking, something is utilized when it starts off being useless, but someone cleverly makes it useful. By that definition, you cannot “utilize” a hammer to pound a nail. It is already expressly useful for that purpose. When someone wrote “Funds will be utilized to employ two new account managers,” the result was double folly. Not only does money not need to be “utilized” (it is already just about universally useful), but money cannot “employ” anyone. The writer meant to say that the funds would be used to pay for two new staff people. In the ethereal realm of philanthropy, we evidently don’t like to speak of people being paid to do things. Too bad, since that is precisely what most foundation grants actually do.
Best practices: Here’s a commendably simple, agreeable little perennial that has somehow been allowed to overrun the garden. It refers to the most effective things that organizations do—things, presumably, of which other organizations should be made aware. To refer to the best of an organization’s practices as its, well, “best practices” is hardly an affront to clarity or plain speaking. The trouble is that, lately, every time a nonprofit organization manages to get through the day without falling into bankruptcy, a team of researchers moves in, often with generous support from a major foundation, casting about for “best practices.” The phrase has gotten out of hand. “Best practices” was coined-advisedly, it seems—to refer to the very best of the practices in a field, not merely all the good ones that could possibly fit into a 100-page report. And in some new and evolving fields there are not yet any practices that can be canonized as “best”—only promising ones that deserve close study and discussion. Our recommendation here is simply to scrutinize the phrase before using it. Are the practices referred to in this context really the best ones? Or are they just effective or interesting? If one of the latter, then it’s best to say so, and save the “best” for later.