• February 27, 2015

Philanthropy's 10 Favorite Buzzwords of the Decade Show How Nonprofits Are Changing

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The actress Angelina Jolie with Somali refugees

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The actress Angelina Jolie with Somali refugees

Buzzwords are fleeting things. They come in and go out, are first hot and then not. However, looked at over time, buzzwords also provide a useful rear-view roadmap of how we got here.

Taken together, the 10 phrases I have chosen to show the long steady rise in market-based solutions for social problem solving, technology’s infiltration of all things fund raising, and a shift in attention from local to global.

Following, in descending order of importance, are the 10 philanthropy buzzwords that define the decade.

Number 10: Donate-now buttons

Remember writing checks, stamping envelopes, and mailing off your donations? Way back in the 1990s that’s how we gave money. Filling in credit card numbers on a direct-mail appeal reply card was high-tech, just a notch above throwing your coins into the swinging red kettle.

Donate-now buttons on Web sites got their start in 1999 and really took off in 2001 when AOL, Cisco, and Yahoo started Network for Good.

Number 9: Prize philanthropy

It used to be the biggest philanthropic honors were those you couldn’t apply for - like the Nobel Prize or the MacArthur “genius” award. That all changed in 2004 when SpaceShipOne, a privately built and piloted craft, completed its second orbit of the earth and won the $10-million X Prize. Since then foundations and corporations have fallen over themselves offering cash prizes for social change. There are challenges for wireless news tools, clean-water carriers, digital learning games, and much more. Philanthropists love prizes because they don’t pay out until you solve the problem.

Number 8: Celebvocates

Nonprofits have always loved celebrity backers. Nowadays, star status requires that every movie actor, utility infielder, and aspiring politician find a charitable cause to love. Ceaseless, blatant self- promotion in the name of hungry children, sad diseases, and cute animals is ceaseless, blatant self-promotion we can all stand behind.

In fact, here-let me wear your T-shirt, carry your tote bag, and tweet a gift to your organization so you can take credit for my generosity.

Number 7: Microvolunteering

Mom used to bake cookies for the PTA and serve on committees for the church. Now she edits marketing copy for the local animal shelter while waiting for the bus and helps NASA identify craters on the moon during boring department meetings. Microvolunteering, the art of donating time in 20-minute increments, comes to us via our smart phones-which we also rely on to organize protests and tweet our bikeathon fund-raising totals.

Number 6: Philanthrocapitalism

Nonprofits should be more like businesses. Giving should be more like investing. And capitalism should be more creative just so long as it continues to let some people get crazy wealthy so they can give some of it back to others.

Philanthrocapitalism, a term coined by Mathew Bishop and Michael Green and used as the name of their 2008 book, celebrates the coming together of business skills and structures with a focus on solving the world’s shared social problems.

Number 5: B Corporation

For entrepreneurs trying to run businesses with a social purpose, corporate structure has been one of the persistent challenges.

Organize as a nonprofit and you’ll be forever capital constrained, organize as a commercial enterprise and you risk losing your mission to investors. Since 2006, a group called B Lab has enabled B corporations (the B stands for benefit) to gain traction around the country and lead a revolution in corporate operations. Corporate code may not be sexy, but these new efforts stand to attract billions of dollars in new investments in social businesses.

Number 4: Impact investing

Impact investing is the active form of socially responsible investing- seeking out commercial investments that return social good and profits. First named in 2008, this marketplace is estimated to grow to $1-trillion in opportunities by 2020. In the midst of global financial collapse the impact-investing realm did more than keep its head above water; it grew in both name recognition and assets.

Number 3: Embedded giving

A pejorative term for cause-related marketing, a term of art coined in 1983 to promote a campaign to repair the Statue of Liberty, embedded giving describes this decade’s approach to adding charitable donations to sales transactions. Choose one iPod over another to give to AIDS?

That’s embedded giving. During the holiday season that just wrapped up, there was no escaping the pressure to add a dollar to your checkout total or buy Aunt Martha the sweater that will help save the seals. Embedded giving is great for retailers, even if the jury’s still out on how well it serves good causes. And the seals? Well, they don’t care what sweater you wear as long as you stop eating all their fish.

Number 2: Microfinance

Thirty years ago, Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker, started lending money to groups of women with no collateral. In 2006 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, helping to make microfinance a household world.

After hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, several companies that specialize in microfinance going public, and some scandal, and you have the field of microfinance. Once the realm of nonprofits with large philanthropic supporters, microfinance is now a mix of commercial bankers and small donors. Sites like Kiva make it possible for anyone with a credit card to be a global lender.

Despite its enormous growth and cachet, we still don’t know how well microfinance helps the poor.

Number 1: Social entrepreneurs

In 2000 few people had ever heard of social entrepreneurs. Many would have defined a social entrepreneur as a very friendly business leader.

A decade later, Kiva’s founders are on Oprah, PBS, and NPR, universities offer degrees in social entrepreneurship, and U.S. presidents both present and past laud social entrepreneurs.

The universal reach of the term results from the legitimate accomplishments of leaders like Jacqueline Novogratz (founder of the Acumen Fund) and Muhammad Yunus and massive investments from philanthropists like Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar.

Forget the fact that no one can agree on a common definition, social entrepreneurs are still the hottest game in town and the buzzword of the decade.

What does the decade ahead hold? Look for the nonprofit world to become the “impact economy,” for the Securities and Exchange Commission to get involved in regulating investments in social enterprises, and for interactive data visualization to become the standout feature of effective nonprofit fund-raising pitches.


Lucy Bernholz is founder of Blueprint Research & Design, in San Francisco, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


1. edwa9838 - January 04, 2011 at 12:35 pm

A list that excludes everything that makes philanthropy worthwhile, like love, solidarity, co-operation, justice, joy and community. I suppose that show's how far we have fallen.

2. gateskeepers - January 04, 2011 at 01:18 pm

I fully agree with your list, Lucy. These are ten buzzwords that must never be used.

3. hawaiidreamservice - January 04, 2011 at 01:37 pm

Great Article & so very true - www.hawaiidreamservicecenter.org

4. rhombus001 - January 04, 2011 at 02:25 pm

Regrettably, Lucy Bernholz is one of the primary propagators--and occasional originator--of these buzzwords. My suggestion: more analysis from Ms. Bernholz and less knee-jerk labeling.

5. dan_lucas - January 04, 2011 at 04:40 pm

If you have read this far, you know ten buzzes, and at least four other folk's perspectives. I add a few thoughts:

1)Prize Philanthropy. This is about as big a contradiction of terms as Military Intelligence. Just today, a local comment on a local blog gave lament that he gave blood to our Blood Bank.
Why the lament?

The Blood Bank offers free ski passes to a local Ski Resort to all who donate at a certain time. It seems this donor always misses the window, and must wait another 56 days to give blood.
Perhaps he should be congratulated for doing the right thing, when no prize is offered.

2)Add a Dollar as you shop. We all experience it everywhere.
Many people are living troubled times right now.
Mine came long ago, and when the clerk asked me to "Add a Dollar", I blushed and replied..."I am one of those who receive the dollars you collect". Silence ensued. I was tired of answering that query with embarrassment.
Quiet giving is preferred please.

Last year, Pepsi skipped a Superbowl Ad, and decided to use the millions for that minute, to make projects by anyone, anywhere come true via voting each month on posted pleas.
They called it "Pepsi Refresh", a grand play on words.
This is a marvelous way to campaign for goodwill of your corporate name, and accomplish a tremendous number of goals.
May more corporations join Pepsi the same way.

A blog called Splashing Glory decided to give a water buffalo to a family in India via Gospel For Asia. That outfit takes out zero for themself and passes 100% along. But I noted it took almost a month to raise $470 for the buffalo gift. It was done by 20 people total. The blog has 440 "Followers".
Do the math on the current state of our hearts.

Much above is methodology, not buzz word.
Here is buzz word: "Please give". Or, "tax deduction".

The tried and true Salvation Army bell ringers had a terrible season, but in Florida, a simple musician, sat down next to a kettle and played Christmas tunes. The coins dropped miraculously and fast. Why the difference?
Hearts were reached with a reason.

Reach hearts and you will reach your goals in givings.
Happy New Year to all involved in worthy endeavors for others.

6. bink614 - January 04, 2011 at 04:46 pm

Excuse me while I barf!!! What a garbage stew. edwa9838 has it correct. Philanthropy at its very core is all of those things that most of us can pop right off the tip of the tongue. No machinations. No memorization of B-school bullfeathers. Fundraisers should be reminded constantly that chasing self-serving corporations is nothing more than fool's gold. "Cause-related marketing" schemes have stolen the good name of philanthropy.

7. dmzemel - January 04, 2011 at 05:10 pm

I wonder what ever happened to "charity" and "generosity." Philanthropy would be better served if more people learned their craft at church and/or synagogue instead of B-School or at an Ad agency.

8. andinarvaez - January 04, 2011 at 05:38 pm

I decided to help out by joining Citizen Effect -- http://citizeneffect.org -- and the term they use to define average individuals who practice philanthropy for international sustainability and development by engaging their networks in fundraising and community building is "Citizen Philanthropists."

I think the key to that and many of the terms you listed is the availability of technology that has evolved the practice of philanthropy and the creation of more Global citizens.

I don't think love, solidarity, cooperation, justice, joy and community are lost in these buzz words, they still what drives philanthropy in all its new iterations.

9. blueprintrd - January 04, 2011 at 08:02 pm

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. These comments confirm what I've thought about buzzwords - love 'em or hate 'em they definitely hit some buttons!

I agree with Andinarvaez and edwa9838 - the issues of caring, generosity are core to philanthropy, not fadish buzzwords.

10. kgilnack - January 05, 2011 at 11:52 am

Lucy is spot on in pointing out the trend in how nonprofits have sought market-based solutions and new funding streams, largely as government and other traditional sources of revenue constricted during the recession.

And she's spot on in pointing out how buzzwords can be fleeting as I think back to the pre-recession part of the decade when the "generation gap" was all the buzz. IMHO, discussion of the critical leadership deficit our sector will face as 401k's bounce back, things stabalize, and more boomers get ready to retire is something I hope comes buzzing back in 2011. Don't get me wrong, many smart and talented millennial have continued the conversation - see http://nonprofitmillennials.org/ - but it's time for the trades, major NPO publications like this, and execs to put "succession planning" "generation gap" "mentoring" "leadership development" back on the forefront of the conversation.

Furthermore, my hope is that conversations and actions around "collaboration" "innovation" and "social enterprise" continue even after dire economic times subside as these have the potential to transform and stabilize the important work of our sector.

Buzzwords may come and go, but I do hope our sector exercises its great ability to multitask by focusing on these two areas and continuing to looking ahead strategically to the next buzzwords that can strengthen our work.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

11. rossor - January 06, 2011 at 04:32 pm

Sure, these buzz words are now cliches. We're all tired of hearing them. It's unfortunate because they once were useful for describing ways people attempted to innovate and enhance philantrophy. That's never a bad thing.

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