Tania Mason: Charities should mind their language

15 May 2019 In-depth

Tania Mason says charities should think about the jargon they use.

Every industry has its own jargon, and the charity sector is no different. Newcomers to charities have to get to grips with all manner of words and phrases that are, if not unique, then at least take on a certain meaning when applied in a charity context. But lately I’ve been detecting that the choice of language in some areas is coming under greater scrutiny in response to changing expectations about the sector and its role.

One word that has become increasingly loaded is “beneficiary”. For years, this has been the word used to describe the people who benefit from a charity’s services, and has seldom been challenged or held to be controversial. But in recent months there has been a growing backlash against the term, with commentators contending that it is pejorative and reinforces the inherent power imbalance in the sector which characterised many of the safeguarding scandals last year.

Some charities have already stopped using the word – homelessness charities, for instance, describe the people they help as “clients” and some other types of charity, such as those in social care, tend to prefer “service user”. Arts and heritage charities talk about “audiences” or “visitors”. All of these imply a less paternalistic relationship between an organisation and those who use its services.

Refugee Support is a three-year-old international NGO that runs shops and kitchens in refugee camps in Greece and Cyprus. It strives to provide #aidwithdignity and says it relates to residents of the camps as “customers” rather than beneficiaries, which is an important distinction. Says founder and CEO Paul Hutchings: “We can’t solve all their problems but we can say to them, ‘you’re a human being just like the rest of us and we’ll respect you just like the rest of us. We’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with you while you’re going through this awful time in your life.’”

One of the charities shortlisted for a Charity Award this year, the Nelson Trust, generally uses the collective noun “women” to describe the sex workers that access its services, but it admits that it tailors its language for different contexts. While it would almost always choose the term “survivor” over “victim”, it admits that “victim” is useful when it comes to persuading local police forces that the women it works with are not criminals.

Some readers may feel that this issue is little more than a minor distraction, and that there are many more important things for charities to worry about than how to describe the people they help. But language is important, as shown by Level Up’s recent successful campaign to convince the press regulators to adopt new guidelines on media reporting of fatal domestic abuse. This achievement aims to stop the media from excusing the behaviour of violent men and blaming the women for their own deaths. It will, say the campaigners, “give dignity back to victims and their families”.

The language we use shapes our values and our culture. So, while I’m not advocating that we should all immediately throw the beneficiary out with the bathwater, it’s worth taking a minute to consider whether it is the most empowering word to use to describe the group of people that you are working so hard to help.

Oh, and don’t forget to log on to charityawards.co.uk and take a peek at the shortlist. It’s a fantastic snapshot of the inspiring work being done by charities up and down the country every day of the week, and a great antidote to the current national news output.


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