The People We Seek to Help

Melinda Tuan

What words should we use to describe the clients served by nonprofits? Participants in nonprofit programs? Recipients of nonprofit services? End beneficiaries of philanthropy? Partners? Constituents? Citizens?

The list of possible answers — ones that take into account power dynamics, cultural sensitivities, and other considerations — goes on and on.

At Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative supporting the practice of high-quality feedback loops, we have settled — for now — on “the people and communities we seek to help.” And we have employed that phrase in our stated goal: “for foundations and nonprofits to be meaningfully connected to each other and to the people and communities we seek to help — and more responsive to their input and feedback.”

Through our signature initiative, Listen for Good (L4G), Shared Insight supports more than 200 diverse, customer-facing nonprofits as they initiate or improve their practice of systematically collecting and using feedback to inform how they can improve their programs and services. Our ultimate hope is that the communities and people we seek to help, especially those whose voices are least heard, will be better off in ways they define for themselves.

Language matters to us, particularly as we strive to honor varying experiences and perspectives and recognize the many and varied ways our communications can be heard and interpreted. We have debated long and hard about using the phrase “the people we seek to help.”

We recognize the phrase is imperfect and reflects some tension with our collaborative’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Some members feel the word “help” perpetuates a power dynamic built up over centuries of structural and systemic racism and can be perceived as denigrating or patronizing toward the people being “helped.” Others feel that being helped and being able to help can be deeply personal and empowering acts. Still others agree that the phrase reveals a power differential, but prefer to acknowledge rather than obscure it.

Since Shared Insight’s founding in 2014, we have struggled with the right words to describe the people at the heart of our work. Some of the phrases we’ve considered, debated, and found wanting include “end beneficiaries,” “clients,” and “ultimate intended constituents.” We ultimately chose the phrase “the people we seek to help” in part due to the recognition that nonprofits and philanthropy don’t always reach the people they intend to help. We also think the phrasing honestly describes the intentions of leaders and staff members at foundations working to help people through philanthropy. We’ve noticed, too, that other organizations, including CEP, have put thought to this issue and have adopted the same or similar phrases.

Recently (some might say “finally”), we decided to ask some nonprofit partners and their participants/clients/end beneficiaries what they thought of the word “help,” how they view themselves, and what words we should use to describe them in the context of our work.

In February 2018, CEP hosted a webinar called “Staying Connected” that featured a participant of a nonprofit program as a speaker. Edna Ortiz, a client at El Centro, a nonprofit based in Lorain, Ohio, was joined on a panel by Victor Leandry, El Centro’s director, and Tony Richardson, now associate director at the Nord Family Foundation, and the three had an insightful conversation about the words we use to describe each other.

Edna has participated in El Centro’s interpretation services, classes for individuals with diabetes and chronic conditions, and engagement classes for parents in the school system, and has provided feedback to the organization about each of these programs. She talked about how empowering it was to give feedback, and about how doing so provided her an opportunity to “help more people” and partner with the organization. Tony from Nord echoed Edna’s view of herself. “The people [nonprofits] serve are partners,” he said. “[The word] ‘clients’ rubs me the wrong way. The language is so important because we are all partners.”

Shannon Revels, a former participant at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) and now a resident services counselor at Community Housing Partnership in San Francisco, put it best when speaking to the staff at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: “You know, it’s all about helping one another. We need to realize that if I help a person in front of me, on the side of me, or behind me, then they in turn will help someone in front of them, behind them, on the side of them.” He added: “It’s one of the keys to success: helping others, which helps ourselves.”

We will continue to listen to our partners, like Edna and Shannon, even as we recognize that as funders with less proximity to the people we seek to help, our language is heard in a different context and may resonate differently. In bringing together all these perspectives, our aim is to continue our learning journey in equity, diversity, and inclusion, which is likely to open our eyes to new considerations, complications, and conclusions about what we say and how we say it. We will continue to adapt as we learn.

In the meantime, until we find better language, Shared Insight will continue to use variations of the phrase, “the people we seek to help.” And we’ll also stick with using “voices least heard,” a phrase itself so densely packed with meaning and implications related to power inequities and other issues that we’d need a whole other blog post to address it.

But whatever language we employ now and into the future, one thing we have learned in our work with several hundred nonprofits and funders is that no single phrase is ever likely to capture the power, spirit, and insights of the people nonprofits serve, or the dynamic relationships among philanthropy’s many players.

Melinda Tuan is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaTuan.

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