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A Framework to Communicate Philanthropy

April 25, 2014

(Jeannine Corey is director of grants information management at the Foundation Center. A version of this post also appears on the GuideStar blog.)

Heasdhot_jeannine_coreyLanguage allows us to communicate complex ideas and acquire information using an agreed-on structure and process. Variations in language around the globe increase the level of effort needed to communicate with people across borders, but it's not impossible if you have a way to translate your ideas into a language others can understand.

The Foundation Center is currently undertaking the challenge of devising a language that can be used by philanthropic organizations around the world to tell the story of their work. That common language is crucial for a field as diverse as ours: not too long ago, we determined that U.S. foundations have more than two hundred and fifty ways to describe "general operating support"!

In 2012, the Foundation Center began to rethink the classification system that has been at the core of our work, a system largely based on the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities structure that we helped create thirty years ago. Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community. Why is this important? Because a shared taxonomy makes it easier for grantseekers to find targeted support, helps funders collaborate with each other and identify potential grantees, and assists researchers and academics who are analyzing the work of the sector.

To that end, staff at the Foundation Center have spent eighteen months evaluating our codes, mining the text of the nearly five million grants and one million philanthropic institutions in our database, and cross-referencing that information against other international standards to inform the creation of a revised taxonomic system. Our goal is not to create another standard but to develop a framework that meets the needs of the sector and can serve as a language that organizations use to communicate their work to each other. For example, we've added new subject areas related to information and media, including associated technologies. We've replaced "type of support" with two new categories: support strategy, to reflect the goal or approach behind the actual support, and transaction type, to capture the various forms of philanthropy beyond the cash grant that happen around the world.

As with the language we use in our day-to-day lives, we expect people will use the words and phrases that resonate with them and best serve their needs. Has anyone ever actually used every single word in the English language? Of course not, and the classification system we are developing is designed to function in the same way: use the words and terms that help you communicate your work. And to make sure the parts of the taxonomy that are relevant to your work make sense, we've opened up a draft of the new system for review and comment through May 23, 2014.

Your input is essential, and we invite everyone in the field to join in. Check out the draft taxonomy [Ed. note: This link was updated on 9/6/2017] and then submit your feedback on both its overall structure as well as specific terms. What do you like about it? What's missing? How can we make it better? We want to know. Together, we can create a taxonomy for the field that serves as a common language we can all use to communicate our work to each other.

-- Jeannine Corey

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