Language is a system that allows us to communicate ideas using an agreed structure and process. Variations in languages 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 important 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 over 250 ways to describe "general operating support," varying from "core support" to "general operations advancement."
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 30 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 more relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community. Why is this important? That language—that communication—enables 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.
Staff at the Foundation Center have spent 18 months evaluating our codes, mining the text of the nearly 5 million grants and 1 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 majority of the sector and can serve as the language that organizations use to communicate their work to each other with set terms and definitions. For example, we have added new subject areas related to information and media, including associated technologies. We have replaced "type of support" with two new categories: support strategy, to reflect the goal or approach behind the support, and transaction type to capture the various forms of philanthropy that happen around the world beyond the U.S. tradition of a cash grant.
As with the language you use in your day-to-day life, we expect that people will use the words and phrases of this taxonomy that resonate with them. Has anyone ever uttered every single word currently available in the English language? Of course not, and the classification system is intended to be used in the same way: use the words that help you communicate your work, and the rest are available to help you understand the work being done by others. We want to make sure the parts of the taxonomy that are relevant to you make sense. That's why we've opened up the draft of this newly proposed system for review and comment through May 23, 2014.
Your input is essential, and we invite you and your colleagues to take part in this process. Check out the draft taxonomy and submit your feedback on both the overall structure and specific terms. What do you like? What's missing? We want to know. Together, we can create a system that provides a common language we can all use to communicate our work to each other.
Jeannine Corey, Foundation Center
© 2014, Foundation Center
Jeannine Corey is the director of grants information management at the Foundation Center. When she's not hard at work improving data about philanthropy, you can find her playing roller derby or spending time with her two sons.