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Philanthropy Buzzwords from History

Philanthropy buzzwords change often. My very first job title in the field of philanthropy was Fundraising Intern. For my next position, I was a Development Intern. Recently, I was asked to provide a recommendation for a promising young philanthropist who was applying for a position called Advancement Intern. All of these internships were entry-level positions that supported a department whose purpose was to raise money. 

These days, it is hard to find a fundraising department that is called the Fundraising Department. Development seems to be the most common name, but advancement has picked up steam in recent years. At Unfunded List, we do have an advancement department but that department covers communications, fundraising (which we do call fundraising), partnerships, and our board management. Despite my background as a development intern, when I say development today I am probably talking about the custom reviewing software we built.

Whatever an organization calls these departments, their work is essential to the success and impact of the organization, and I’ve always thought it a little strange that we can’t always agree on what to call it. I suppose it’s because it did not take potential donors very long to realize what the Director of Fundraising was calling about. A meeting with the Advancement Director sounds very forward thinking and a meeting with someone in Development could be about literally anything at all.

Philanthropy Buzzwords

Philanthropy uses a lot of buzzwords and jargon and always has. Several years ago, we highlighted some of the most overused words in philanthropy. Over time, many of these overused philanthropy buzzwords can fall out of fashion. Indeed, some words that were commonplace a century ago are considered offensive today, whereas others just sound old fashioned or outdated. As an exploration of this trend, I dug out some of my dogeared philanthropy history textbooks looking for history’s forgotten Philanthropy Buzzwords.


Variations: Voluntary Associations

Alexis de Tocqueville once claimed that the American “art of joining” voluntary associations was the “fundamental science” of democracy. Voluntarism is a top issue for funding by private foundations, but you probably think it’s a misspelling of Volunteerism. Indeed, the word Voluntarism is centuries older than Volunteerism which only began being used in the 1970s. The act of citizens voluntarily getting together and making change in their communities has been discussed for centuries, even before de Tocqueville’s famous tour of America.

I put this word first because it is my favorite of philanthropy’s forgotten words. American philanthropists and nonprofit organizations should be doing more to insert voluntarism and voluntary associations into the language of American life.


Variations: Reformer, Reformatory

When I talk to my father, a retired history professor who focused on 19th-century America, about the history of philanthropy in the United States he uses the word reform a lot. If I talk to contemporary philanthropists, activists, and fundraisers, I hardly ever hear it. When I do, it’s almost always in relation to immigration reform or some other specific policy reform. Google Trends shows that it spikes during these major policy debates and its use has very slightly declined overall since 2004. It was used much more widely by philanthropists in the 19th century. They discussed, among other things, humanitarian reform, moral reform, charity reform, and social reform quite extensively. And philanthropists sometimes funded the creation of reformatories, a word that almost certainly conjures a negative connotation for you.

The moral reformers of the 1830s were a philanthropic juggernaut. From Robert H. Bremner’s book American Philanthropy (1988) we learn:

The 1830s, an era of religious, political, and economic ferment, was the age of the “Benevolent Empire,” a coalition of separate but closely related interdenominational religious societies. These various organizations collected and dispersed funds for distributing Bibles, for promoting missions, for advancing the cause of temperance, Sabbath observance, and the Sunday-school movement, provided assistance to poor youths who wished to become clergy, and labored mightily to uplift the morals of seamen.

Where are today’s NGOs focusing on the morals of seamen, I ask you? Where?

Bremner continues,

[The moral reformers’] combined membership ran in the hundreds of thousands and contributions amounted to several million dollars a year. Each of the societies held rousing national conventions, and had offices, life-members, and of course rich angels. Elias Boudinot, Stephan Van Rensselaer, David Olyphant, Arthur and Lewis Tappan…made generous contributions.

He concludes,

In the hard times following the panic of 1837, many contributors had to curtail their gifts to the moral reform societies. The associations were harassed by sectarian jealousies, mounting sectional tensions, and by demands that they either denounce or defend the institution of slavery. [The moral reformers] adopted a policy of silence on the issue of slavery, partly because it was politic [sic] to do so, and partly because their concern was with personal, not social reform (or so they maintained).


Variations: Alms, Almsgiving

Alms is one of philanthropy’s oldest words. A major discussion topic of the charity reformers of the 19th century was about the best strategy for providing funding to the poor. This is too large a topic to cover here, and indeed this conversation continues today.

Almshouses, also called Poor Houses, were institutions of last resort for the impoverished. They were instituted as part of the English Poor Laws and could be found commonly in the US until the mid-20th century when they were abandoned as a failed policy and replaced by a large network of nonprofits and social service providers. Today, less than a century later, talking about alms in any context would certainly raise an eyebrow at any nonprofit meeting and we cannot recommend using this word in a grant proposal or RFP.


Variations: Pauperism, Pauperized

Pauperism is an ugly word. It means the state of utter poverty and implies dependence on the state or charity. Paupers are not only poor but a burden on the state. Their condition was often seen as their own fault (due to alcoholism or moral failings) and their constant supplications (in the form of begging) were considered a public nuisance. .

In the 19th century there was a general fear of pauperism, and a belief that those dependent on charity would never lift themselves up by their bootstraps so to speak. Philanthropists wanted to support the poor, but not create dependence. Bremner explains, “They wanted to help the poor but were so fearful of pauperizing them that the only commodity they dared offer was advice. That they gave liberally: hints on household management, admonitions on waste, intemperance, and idleness, and sermons on the virtues of self-help.” 

In the late 1920s, English Poor Laws were repealed by the Local Governments Act of 1929 and the word pauper very quickly fell out of favor. Good riddance.


Long before the Effective Altruists, Trust-based Philanthropists, Venture Philanthropists and Impact Investors – even before  foundations and tax deductions – came the Scientific Philanthropists. Their discourse dominated American conversations about philanthropy in the early 19th century. The organizations of the 1830s Benevolent Empire became the main force for spreading the doctrines of so-called “scientific philanthropy.” Today, there is an entire ecosystem focused on measuring the impact of grants and funding. The history of Scientific Philanthropy in the 1800s is fascinating and very well summarized in an eponymous chapter in Bremner’s American Philanthropy.

The Charity Organization Societies of the time would hang signs declaring “NO RELIEF HERE” and criticized the funding of soup kitchens as “all soup, no salary.” They spent the better part of a century turning away from a millenia old alms-based approach that they believed encouraged pauperism and towards a professional ecosystem informed by science, research, staffed by professionals and organized to prevent pauperism rather than merely ameliorate it. 

The work of the scientific philanthropists was not confined to just nonprofits and private foundations. The State was involved as well and increasingly tied funding to the conditions of the recipients, particularly their willingness  to work. This led to the rise of a new professional field, that of the social worker.

Make Sure Your Grant Proposal Language is Current

Unfunded List evaluators love words of all sorts. We will read your grant proposal submission and you will receive helpful and candid comments from 6-12 relevant experts with different perspectives about your work and different opinions about philanthropy buzzwords. As we’ve seen from the history of philanthropy, people can have strong opinions about the words we choose to use. Unfunded List can help you choose carefully. We hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal or joining our evaluation committee today. 


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