March 07, 2001 2 min read

Combating Foundation-speak: When you say “proactive,” do you mean “preventive” or “aggressive”? If you refer to a group of people as “at risk,” what are they at risk of? And what do you really mean by “capacity building,” anyway?

Those are just a few of the questions Tony Proscio has lobbed into the foundation world in a good-natured attempt to cut through its jargon-laden prose and get folks to write clearly and simply.

For More Information

For a free copy, write to the Clark Foundation, 250 Park Ave., New York, NY, 10177.

Since its publication last year by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, his clever deconstruction of foundation-speak, In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations, has been provoking laughs and linguistic soul- searching.

Dorothy S. Ridings, the president of the Council on Foundations in Washington, said she’s been at several meetings where people have “called each other” on their use of jargon and chuckled about Mr. Proscio’s book. Excerpts of the 60-page volume, which appear periodically in the council’s magazine, are much talked about. “They’ve really hit a nerve,” Ms. Ridings said.

Mr. Proscio, for his part, intends to hit that nerve, but only out of love. A veteran of the nonprofit sector who worked for years on urban redevelopment, he believes many foundations do important work that should be shared with the public.

“I’m looking out for their interests in a way they aren’t,” said Mr. Proscio, 46, a New York City-based consultant to nonprofit organizations who describes himself as an “avocational grammarian.”

“They do important and valuable work,” he said, “and by putting the rest of the world to sleep when they talk about it, they’re doing themselves and the people they serve a monstrous disservice.”

When Mr. Proscio served as a consultant to the Clark Foundation several years ago, he found a kindred jargon-loathing spirit in its president, Michael Bailin, who suggested he write something about it. In Other Words was the result.

In it, Mr. Proscio dissects real examples of foundation writing laced with sleep-inducing phrases of dubious meaning, and offers more lively and accurate alternatives.

Mr. Proscio said writing the booklet was “the most fun I ever had collecting a paycheck,” and he expressed relief that people have taken it in the playful spirit in which he wrote it.

“I’m under no illusions that I’ve solved the problem,” he said, “but at least it’s given vent to those of us out here who go crazy over this stuff.”

—Catherine Gewertz

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week