Why a Jargon Buster?

1. Because it's fun! The third sector takes itself much too seriously, generally omitting a sense of humour from the strategic planning and required professional skills! – see 'jokes'.
2. Because the sector has jargon all of its own. This is characteristic of all insecure groupings, but it's a rare to find a grouping so insecure that it uses jargon for its own name! – see 'third sector', and also 'third', and 'sector'. And
3. Because the sector doesn't agree about what much of its jargon means. And if it does know what something means, it has usually forgotten why. (See 'How did jargon happen?') People seem to think of me as a sector expert, so I'm often asked to explain things.

What follows is my personal take on an arbitrary list of words and phrases that I've had to explain over the years, plus a bit of extemporisation. (Well, if you can't extemporise on your own website....) I hope the 'Jargon Buster' is reasonably well informed, but please don’t take it as legally definitive, and I know it isn't the only jargon buster in town - actually, in 2005, there was a bit of an epidemic of them. But like I said, it's fun! Click on the left. And if you want me to have a stab at another mysterious term, send me an email and watch this space!

How did jargon happen?

It so often starts with a speaker who wants to impress an audience and thus establish him/herself as a 'thinker'. And what way better way to do this than to invent a new piece of jargon? As long as you sound confident about what it means, it doesn't matter if faults can be found later. Or if there's already a perfectly good word (jargon or not) for what you mean. Or if someone else has beaten you to it and already invented jargon for the same thing. Normally an audience will see through this. But sometimes..., well, the jargon grows legs. It gets heard, and repeated, by people who don't like to admit that they don't know what it means.

And then..., personally, I blame the government! When I first wrote this, I knew it wasn't completely fair, but I wanted to describe the process of ministerial speechwriting, which seemed responsible for much jargon-spreading. It still is! - see below. Indeed so much jargon has now crept into 21st Century UK government-speak in relation to the third sector, that I've had to add a whole new Government section to the Jargon buster. Here's a link to it - or carry on with the original 'ministerial speechwriting' bit:

It starts when people use their own jargon when communicating to a government minister, who (or whose Private Office staff) may be perhaps too easily impressed. And so it gets into the minister's next speech. Letting the audience know that you know the jargon - great stuff! You must be well informed! Perhaps even informed enough to convince ministerial colleagues - that you actually know the technical name for that slightly elusive social problem which would be so impressive for the government to recognise and solve. As for your 'lay' audience, well, if the minister comes out with a new bit of jargon that sounds almost right, why cause trouble if a new funding programme might be on the cards? Just remember to work the new jargon into your next funding application!

The trouble with this is that it's so easy for distortions to creep at each stage of repetition. The meaning is slightly misunderstood, or a nuance is added or removed. And so the 'Minister's new jargon' can change the way a concept comes to be understood, even though the original misunderstanding may have been quite genuine. And as with its close relative the 'King's new clothes', no-one wants to admit that they didn't quite understand. Sometimes indeed, the original inventor is left fuming but quite unable to establish that their intelligently invented jargon now means something different. Some confusions are just never sorted out.

Actually, it really isn't all down to the government. When it comes to spreading jargon, there's nothing like an international network. English has become (rather to the irritation of the French) the international language of convenience. But this brings an under-recognised problem. The same word or phrase may have a different meaning in British and American English. The meanings may be overlap and the difference may be subtle, but the rest of the world borrows transatlantically without distinction or awareness.

In 'third-sector-speak', philanthropy (qv) is a good example of this. The British and American meanings aren't the same. But you should also recognise/recognize that other differences are simply, and unimportantly, about spelling, for example 'organisation'/'organization'. I've included some other British-American third-sector confusions in the US-UK section. (For broader comparison of British and American English, try Bill Bryson's book Mother Tongue.)

Usually, nobody is absolutely right or wrong about these distinctions, but in international networks it's just not done to draw attention anything that looks like disunity. Too often, genuine differences of opinion are glossed over, when it would be really useful to clarify them. Conversely, there are meanings and concepts which are genuinely shared, but which are explained with jargon that sounds different. This serves no good purpose apart from adding to the range of linguistic choices available. In due course, dictionaries and thesauruses get written, explaining new jargon in terms of old, and indeed helpfully swapping new jargon for old. Thus, old concepts can be recycled as new ideas, especially if an international statesman is giving the keynote speech!

There's one good place to sort out such confusions: the bar, where all the best work at international conferences is done. This is where people can get drunk and friendly enough to ask what a particular term means, or more specifically what it means in their drinking companion's country. When they genuinely compare meanings, then and only then can they set up a meaningful international programme. Too often however, drink, as Shakespeare noted, provokes the desire but takes away the ability. In which case the agreed deal may continue to gloss over the confusion - preferably headed by a brand new piece of inspired jargon.

So jargon continues to cause confusion, with its partly different and partly misunderstood meanings. All sectors, all industries, are prone to it. But the third sector does seem to suffer more than most. Perhaps it's a natural consequence of the pride the sector takes in its diversity.

Third sector

When setting up my consultancy practice, I came up with the ‘Good Foundations’ title. To make clear that I wasn’t concerned with civil engineering – see 'foundation' – I decided to add the ‘strapline’ ‘Third Sector Strategy and Governance’. I proudly showed my family my new letterhead with the (as I thought) fully explained ensemble. Bafflement! What does it mean? 'Third sector'?!!!' They didn't get beyond the first word! "Well, potential clients will know what it means", I said, a bit lamely. But the family doesn't live, let alone breathe, the 'third sector'. Yet I couldn’t come up with anything better. So, here’s the full explanation (a version of which once chosen as 'Letter of the Week' in the magazine 'Third Sector').

The first sector is government; the second is commerce (or the other way around, depending on your politics). So the ‘third sector’ is the part of society that belongs to neither of these two. It’s everything else! - the bits you mention (if you mention them at all) as incidental:- the charitable work you do, the organisations you give money to, the organisations that help you with unusual problems, the hobbies you have, the clubs you belong to, the skills that don't (normally) make you money, but which enrich your own and other people's lives and contribute to public good. Ah, those things! They aren't government, because nobody elected the third sector to be responsible for public services (which doesn’t stop many of the third sector's services being, often unfairly, more popular than the ones run by governments). The third sector isn't about commercial activity, though ‘third sector’ organisations can operate commercially and make profits, provided the profits are reinvested, or at least used for public rather than private purposes. (See ‘non-profit’, below.)

That's where I work. Helping third sector organisations to function better. (See 'What I do'.)

The 'third sector' phrase seems to work internationally, eg ‘troisième secteur’, ‘dritte sektor’, but see below for notes on some of the other alternatives, and some musings on why it's ‘third’ and why it's called a ‘sector’.

PS I actually feel quite affectionate about the term 'voluntary sector' - but it does have its own confusions, and 'third sector' trips off the tongue better - well enough to be preferred as the name for the sector's only weekly magazine.

PPS I've recently changed the strapline to 'Third sector governance and grant-making', which reflects a gradual change in the balance of my work, but the meaning of 'third sector' remains a problem.

Why third?

The ‘third’ sector wasn’t always ‘third’. The pecking order has changed.

Government, having been elected, was normally 'first'. In the past, over ‘beer and sandwiches at Number 10’ (c.1964-79), government took on the thankless job of arbitrating between the then second and third sectors: industry and the trade unions, often in apparent competition for second position. News about this competition was reported by the undisputed holder of fourth place: journalism - the fourth estate, which asked questions like ‘who runs the country?’ Gradually the unions lost, and became part of commerce; (no doubt they would dispute this, and the role of public sector unions is still unsettled). Further confusion was added by a long period of government that, with unusual perversity, wanted less government and so spent much effort trying to would hand over its own 'first sector' role to the commercial 'second' sector. The vacancy for third place was not filled by the previous ‘fourth estate’, no doubt to avoid difficult questions about over-powerful media. So the ‘voluntary sector' was promoted to third. I wonder who by. Previously, it was, if placed at all, just occasionally mentioned as the ‘fifth sector’. But nowadays, despite often being asked to take on the governmental role of the first sector and challenged to be more like the commercial second, it seems happy to be third. The mere fact of a ranking gives it status, and being third is an acknowledgement that the first two sectors are more powerful and is indeed a challenge to them to use their power wisely. And the acknowledgement is now being institutionalised with the creation within government of the 'Office of the Third Sector' in the Cabinet Office.

If this seems like an account with a British bias, comparative accounts from other countries are welcome. As I've said, as jargon goes, 'third sector' does seem to work internationally.

An afterthought: There are other countries where religion would belong somewhere at the top of this hierarchy, and where there are key struggles between religion and government for primacy, or in a few cases between religion and commerce. The trouble with this is that religions, where they are bothered at all, do not see themselves as competing for a place in a hierarchy, but as transcending all hierarchies. In countries like Britain, religious organisations do of course have their place in the third sector, recognised by the accepted position of 'advancement of religion' as a charitable purpose. But this is not always comfortable, as witness the tension between secular and religious charities.

Why 'sector'?

I’ve been groping for an alternative term to describe the, er, ‘sector’. It isn’t an ‘industry' (though often very ‘industrious’). It isn’t an ‘entity’, because that implies a separate existence and the sector’s connections with the rest of society are essential. I’ve tried ‘grouping’, but the sector isn’t all that keen on grouping itself together properly. It tends to do so best, albeit reluctantly, when enough of it is under threat to warrant speaking with a single voice.

The ‘sector’ is often invoked to mean organisations concerned mainly with social welfare. It sometimes seems to include ones concerned with the environment and animals. But in practice arts organisations are often left out – they’re ‘different’ – as, because of a soon-to-be-corrected quirk in charity law, are sports organisations. So are political parties – they’re voluntary organisations but they're ‘political’ and want to be part of government; some of them succeed! Likewise trade unions – even though their co-operative history suggests they have a genuine place alongside other self-help organisations. Unions' 'industrial and provident society' registration - a format recently reformed - tends to exclude them from numerical counts of charities.

When Americans (ie from the USA, I’m not sure about the rest of the two American continents) speak of the ‘nonprofit sector’, they include universities. But Brits, on the whole, don’t. This is because we see universities as part of state education provision. If you have trouble comparing transatlantic third sector statistics properly, that’s likely to be the reason - the different take on higher education. American universities do indeed have significant endowments and fund-raising operations (and some British ones are catching up fast); some American universities, despite the image, are actually substantially subsidised by government. But the image is different. In the USA, education is part of the 'private', ie third or nonprofit, sector.

Religion is usually included in the sector, again because of a feature of UK charity law that however excludes atheism though not secular organisations generally. Again there is an American complication, because in the USA religious organisations are significant providers of mainstream social services.

‘Sector’ also has a mathematical meaning: a slice of a circle cut off by a straight line. The line doesn’t have to reach the circle’s centre, so there can be several sectors, overlapping but leaving holes for which no-one claims responsibility. Conceptually this is not a bad description of society as a whole. But if the sector defines itself negatively, as it usually does, doing what government and commerce do not, then, on this model, the third sector has a peculiar geometry indeed - see 'monster'.

When trying to justify itself positively, the sector tends to promote itself with statistics that, mathematically, describe a ‘segment’, ie a sector defined by a circle and two radial lines that do meet at the centre. Typically the sector, when trying to assert its own importance, claims 4 per cent of GDP, as if that were a large number. The usual objection to government is that, if its size approaches 50% of GDP, it’s getting too big! There seems to be an unstated natural hierarchy of sectors. Offend against it if you dare!

Serpent or monster?

Some time around 1988, the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd called pressure groups “..serpents which strangle democracy..“ . The voluntary sector (as it was then known) rounded on him and he was forced to retreat, but it was a rare moment when a minister admitted resentment at being put under pressure from lobbyists when the normal protocol is to praise voluntary activists and indeed to welcome their contribution to democracy. But maybe the idea of the sector as a 'serpent' had planted a seed which flowered in 1996, when...

One of the better attempts to describe the sector's odd geometry was ‘loose and baggy monster’. This caught on, sort of, well at least better than 'serpent'. The context was a Commission, chaired by Professor Nicholas Deakin in 1996, which reviewed the third sector in advance of the 1997 General Election. It's a long story... The 'monster' phrase was attributable, I think, to Barbara Young, erstwhile chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Diabetes UK, who was a member of the Commission. But even though Barbara's is an excellent description - far be it from me to suggest that it earned her her seat in the House of Lords - the listener must understand the irony: that the ‘monster’ is loose, baggy, and friendly! Irony, alas, doesn’t translate well. Can you really imagine us talking about ‘the monster’, as in ‘government, industry, and the monster? It doesn't work any better than Douglas Hurd's 'serpent' - and he's in the House of Lords too, which might make for interesting debates! But no, ‘sector’ it’s going to have to be!

Voluntary sector

As I said earlier, I actually prefer the term 'voluntary sector' to 'third sector'. But 'voluntary' seems to mean organisations run by volunteers, while 'voluntary sector' means organisations that are themselves voluntary. So it should be said that all voluntary organisations do involve volunteers. Some volunteers 'run' the organisation, and some don’t, but it depends what you mean by 'run'. Some volunteers are responsible for the organisation as trustees or members of the board. But they tend not to be the ones who do ‘Voluntary work’ or engage in ‘Volunteering’. This confusion underrates the contribution of board members, whose work ought to be, but isn't always, counted as 'Voluntary work' or 'Volunteering'. Yet very few board members or trustees are paid, so what else are they but volunteers?

Yet the operational work in very many voluntary organisations is actually done mainly by paid staff, who as employees are ultimately accountable to the voluntary trustees/board and to the public. They may be helped by unpaid staff, ie volunteers - a further confusion. A chief executive is likely to be identified as the person who, more than most people, does run an organisation, but he or she won't be formally responsible for it, and is least likely to be a volunteer - except in the sense of working, as so many CEs and other staff do, far more hours than their contract of employment says.

There’s nothing wrong with voluntary organisations having staff. Indeed it’s a good thing for people to dedicate part or all of their careers to working in voluntary organisations. Yet, organisations don’t want to admit to that they employ staff, so the myth abounds in the minds of many members of the public that voluntary organisations are run by volunteers. Or that they ought to be run by volunteers. So anyone who takes a salary is cast as some sort of parasite stealing an organisation’s donated funds, to the detriment of those in real need.

The world’s most successful voluntary organisations are highly dependent on paid staff, whose contribution is that much more effective because they are working on the cause full-time. Their value for money compares well with that of ‘volunteers’. Think about it - it's more efficient to have one full-time person doing 40 hours a week than 10 people doing 4 hours each, But the myth persists of the ‘voluntary organisation’ as being run by volunteers. Good voluntary organisations, working on large issues, need staff. They're essential. They also need good governance from voluntary trustees and board members. Voluntary work of all sorts adds value.

The trick in effective voluntary organisations is to get the balance in the partnership right. Yet so rarely in the voluntary sector is any count made of the real relative contribution of volunteers and paid staff, so nobody really has any benchmarks as to where the best balance ought to be.


This is Government's name for the sector. It's short for 'Voluntary and Community Sector'. It arises from a campaign circa 2000 by the Community Sector Coalition (a network whose members include Community Matters, British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, and Community Development Foundation), to change the sector's generic name from 'Voluntary Sector' on the basis that active members of communities were 'volunteers' in the traditional sense of doing good 'for' others and community organisations were an intrinsic part 'of' the community rather than being 'voluntary organisations' - brought into existence by a wish to do good or promote a cause. I don't dispute the distinction, but don't take such a narrow view of the word 'voluntary'. I thought the extra words made the sector sound longwinded and, dare I say it, a little obsessed with pernickety distinctions. But the Government didn't want the argument, so it adopted the term 'Voluntary and Community Sector'. In practice this was too long, so the acronym 'VCS' is the term used in very many Government documents, particularly from the Home Office, Treasury, and the new Government Office for the Third Sector (which is in the Cabinet Office, but the staff still - July 2006 - work from the Home Office building and have Home Office email addresses, but I digress). I have to admit that the campaigners for change have won, because the government just loves talking about community (qv) and if you want to understand government documents, you have to know what 'VCS' means.

Non-profit etc

Voluntary organisations are allowed to make profits. They just have to plough any profits back into their own operations. They can even budget for profit, so ‘non-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ aren’t accurate. The obligation is to operate for public purposes and not to distribute profits to shareholders or otherwise use them for private benefit. The precise language makes the problem clear. Somehow, the accurate ‘non-profit-distributing sector’ has never caught on, and the term ‘public sector’ has already been bagged by the government. So 'non-profit' has emerged as an alternative to ‘voluntary’, see above. But it sounds negative. Sometimes the hyphen is dropped, so as to create a new word, ‘nonprofit’. Nothing wrong with this, though its main effect is to actually to make it easier to identify organisations and literature from the USA, where the term 'nonprofit' has the widest currency.


This is short for 'non-government organisation'. Another negative-sounding phrase. If you never sound out the acronym, it loses the full meaning as it trips off the tongue as 'EnJeeOh'. This largely avoids the problem of interpreting the concept. For many years, and perhaps even still, United Nations' statisticians counted any organisation as part of government if it was merely government-funded - but surely the sector isn't that corruptible! This meant that UN statistics on the 'third sector' seriously understated the sector's size, the more so because data was pretty inadequate on the few organisations that met the strict requirement of receiving no government money. It proved quite a challenge for 'Civicus' - see 'Civil society'.

Less seriously, 'NGO' has lent itself to a little sub-set of mock acronyms:

DONGO - Donor-organised NGO
GONGO - Government-organised NGO
UNONGO - United Nations-organised NGO
CONGO - Commercially-oriented NGO, now less useful since the re-re-naming of Zaïre
BINGO - A lottery game with cards and numbers. (Just testing!)

Civil society

A term much used in continental Europe. It has the virtue of not being negative – ie not ‘non-profit’ or ‘non-government'. It was given a helping hand in the mid-1990s with the formation of the international pro-sector pressure group with the cod-Latin name of Civicus.

There is another nuance. In many countries that have emerged from dictatorships or authoritarian régimes, people who were previously in the third sector, often operating underground, have often taken up politics, or re-emerged as politicians. Of course they have a particular affection for civil society, which has provided links with non-government organisations in other countries during their underground period. Recent developments in Iraq have brought much anxiety to recreate civil society there, ie government, in place of the 'uncivil' Saddam Hussein régime, but many of the emerging 'civil society' organisations identify not as 'third sector' but as religious.

My problem with the term 'civil society' is that it fudges the boundaries with government. In the UK, the term ‘civic’ has long been used to describe local government. Indeed, I was taught ‘civics’, ie local government, for a single term ('semester' for Americans) at school, and a very useful short course it was. But with local government going out of fashion – the ‘centralisation’ debate and all that – who knows?

Others might object that the commercial sector also has its place in civil society, a very worthwhile point in countries like Russia where centralising governments are supposed to be - but aren't - a thing of the past. And that makes 'civil society' even more of a fudge. I prefer 'third sector'. It keeps boundaries clear that need to be kept clear. It doesn't stop people from crossing the boundaries, but does bring an expectation that they should acknowledge when they do so.

Planning the sector

I've indexed this section under 'Outcomes' because that is currently the most fashionable of several jargon words that are generically about planning the voluntary sector (or actually about planning anything, but the voluntary sector seems to need the jargon, or put up with being subjected to it, more than other sectors). I'm going to list and group some words without offering much of an explanation. This is mainly because I feel the words are self-explanatory. What's more, they tend to shade into each other, so crisp definitions are easier to write than to apply in practise. Other people have tried explaining them, and there are reasonable discussions in material published by NCVO, Charities Evaluation Services and others.

          'What we are trying to do' words

          'What we actually achieve' words

          'Tools for measuring' words

Aim, Mission, Objective, Target

Activity, Output, Outturn, Product, Outcome, Impact

Baseline, Milestone, Indicator, Benchmark

It's so often the words on the middle line that cause problems. When organisations are asked what they've achieved, they give a list or a 'count' of their activities or outputs. It isn't always evident how the activities address the aims - the words on the first line. So it doesn't follow from the activities/outputs that there has been any particular outcome.

What is a foundation?

I've been asked what a foundation is, many times. Sometimes, the questioner has opened with "I think I'd like to set up a foundation. But could you tell me first what is a foundation?" Further questioning has sometimes revealed a willingness to back the mysterious 'foundation' concept with lots of money! I thought it would be useful to write down what I know. But don't expect a simple answer. A foundation can be many things, there are several types, and the meaning may depend on where you are. Here are links to the main types, or (better) just read on and you'll come to them anyway:
Charitable, Grant-making, Operating, Private, Public, Family, Trustee-run, Endowed, independent, Set-up-by-a-founder, and Foundations-which-are-not-associations.

There doesn't seem to be an accepted definition of the word 'foundation'. At least none that is recognised across the world or across the third sector. The 'foundation' concept genuinely varies from country to country, and causes much confusion.

Unusually, the internet is no use, as the results of a search for 'foundation' are smothered by the architectural/engineering usage, in which a 'foundation' is something that supports a building. (Yes, I know many of the third sector's 'foundations' do support buildings, but financially not physically. Ignore this; it's a passing thought that will cause even more muddle!) A female colleague of a certain age told me recently that 'foundation' connotes to her something very different: a 'foundation garment' - which holds certain parts of the body robust and firm. This meaning is much too old for the internet, and has no relevance whatsoever to foundations of the philanthropic type.

In most of the world, anyone can set up a 'foundation'. They'll probably be doing it because they want to give away money and create a philanthropic body which bears their name. But some philanthropists deliberately avoid using their own name, preferring to give anonymously, or in the name of a relative. Some foundations are created in a person's will and only come into being when they die, being run by the people they nominate as the first trustees. Some foundations are not set up with money but with the object of raising funds for a cause or carry out research. There are few restrictions on setting up a foundation, but the founder might not get it officially registered and recognised, though they may not need whatever the benefits of registration might be - and the benefits, where they exist, vary considerably. But in some countries, registration of foundations is compulsory, or at least it is compulsory where the purposes are charitable or public (the UK and USA are two such countries). Registration may bring obligations which some philanthropists find tiresome: filing accounts, publishing lists of those awarded grants, and (in the USA) spending at least 5 per cent of the asset-value each year.

In England & Wales, a foundation whose purposes are completely charitable (and thus in some respect public) must register with the Charity Commission, and there are certain other requirements, such as having at least three resident trustees and various other precautions designed to stop corruption, and (as already mentioned) duties to file accounts. A UK company cannot be called a 'foundation' without special permission, which is intended to stop a purely private organisation from masquerading as a charity. But an organisation that isn't technically charitable probably would not be stopped from a calling itself a foundation if it were established for public purposes (for example the 'think tank' of a political party) .

In the UK, most 'foundations' are charitable grant-making bodies. Thus the Association of Charitable Foundations was able to make it a condition of membership that a member organisation should have grant-giving as one of its activities. This is not however a general rule for a 'foundation', even in the UK. Indeed, more of the Association's members (and more UK grant-giving bodies generally) use the generic name 'trust' than use 'foundation', and other terms like 'settlement' and 'fund' are frequently used.

A foundation can run its own programmes - an operating foundation - rather than use its investment income to make grants, or it can mix the way it spends its money. There is no rule. Many American or German foundations, for example, are research-based, running their own programmes or commissioning others to do relevant research. A few German foundations are established for purposes which are explicitly party political, something which is legally forbidden, or just not done, in most other countries. An American foundation will derive its precise legal status not from its name but from its purpose as related to a variety of definitions in the tax law. (When Americans talk about a 501(c)(3) organization, they mean a tax exempt charitable organisation, on a definition that includes nearly all charities and foundations, with certain restrictions on lobbying and supporting political candidates.)

Outside the French-dominated foundation/association countries, the basic legal concept is trusteeship - in which a group of trustees takes formal responsibility for an organisation. Even membership associations have a trust structure, in which (usually) the trustees are elected by the membership. A foundation will normally be a body with trustees, who may or may not be supported by paid staff. A charitable foundation (or 'trust' or 'fund') will always have a trusteeship structure, whether it runs its own programmes or makes grants, and even if there are complications involving limited liability or trustees which are corporate bodies.

A foundation should be a body with public purposes, though in countries without a regulatory system of any sort, it is possible for a foundation to be a purely private organisation, without public objects and with no basic transparency.

In the USA and Canada, a 'public foundation' is any foundation with 'public good' objects that is under the control of a board elected through some sort of open process, such as a community foundation.

However, there is much confusion around the term 'private foundation', as used in the USA and Canada. This does not mean that a foundation lacks public purposes. It means that it is under the control of private citizens as trustees for what may very well be public purposes. Those purposes may be esoteric and quirky, depending on what was prescribed by the founder, but the intention is to do public good. There are obligations to behave transparently including filing accounts which are open for inspection. The filed accounts are then well documented in databases and directories.

A 'family foundation' is a variety of private foundation - where the most or all of the trustees come from the founder's family. But outside the USA and Canada, families tend to regard their charitable family foundation as a vehicle for their public giving, and so would not use the term 'private foundation'; (the term 'private trust' is used mainly to describe a trust set up with family members as beneficiaries). A family might use 'independent foundation' as an alternative to 'family foundation', though this has a broader meaning.

In the UK, a foundation, whether private or public in USA terms, will normally be charitable, for which one of the requirements is that it must operate for public purposes. But in any country, and whether or not it meets the strict requirements of the country's charity law, an independent foundation is one that is controlled independently of government (ie by trustees),

A 'foundation' will normally derive its income from an endowment of land or invested capital, but this is not a requirement either in trust law or in foundation/association countries.

Many organisations adopt the title 'foundation' because they are trying to raise endowment funds and think that being a 'foundation' gives an impression of greater solidity. UK Community foundations changed their generic name from 'community trust' a few years back for largely this reason - their purpose being to raise endowment funds for general charitable purposes in their community. Many other larger trusts in the UK have followed suit in recent years, but numerically, if not in aggregate finance, those called 'foundation' are still outnumbered by those called 'trust'.

Finally, we need to take a detour to explain that 'foundations' in some countries are established on a rather different basis, because their law doesn't make much use of the concept of trusteeship. In such countries, there are two basic concepts of voluntary organisation, the 'foundation' and the 'association', to which different sets of regulations are applied. The distinction is usually explained as 'An association has a membership, and a foundation has money'. This isn't really good enough, because an association can have money while a foundation does not necessarily need any. The notion of a membership is the real key to this distinction. It means that, in 'foundation/association' countries a 'foundation' is any third sector organisation that does not have a membership. It is thus self-appointed. It may have an endowment and significant investment income. Or it may have no funds at all, but a significant fund-raising programme. It may make grants or it may run its own activities. There may be an 'association' running very similar activities. Foundation/association countries include most countries that use basic French legal concepts but there are others, eg Hungary. Thus the Hungarian Directory of Foundations is a general directory of third sector organisations which do not have a membership. I said 'regulations are applied' to these organisations, because (in most 'foundation/association' countries) organisations need permission from the State to exist, so they are better documented, and do not grow in quite the anarchic way that happens in the rest of the world. But there is a fundamental tension with the basic human right of association, so in a free society the State will have only limited rights to refuse registration to a 'foundation'.

I hope that makes things clearer. But there really isn't a universally accepted definition of a 'foundation', and organisations like the European Foundation Centre seem to thrive on the confusion. If you can't tell what a foundation is about, there is one basic rule:

If in doubt, ask to see the accounts.


The basic concept of a trust is that a group of people look after money for the benefit of another person or group of people. This will normally be a private trust, and actually the whole concept seems to derive from soldiers going off to war who needed to 'entrust' their money to someone back home to ensure their family were looked after. But where a trust is charitable, the person or persons benefiting (the 'beneficiary') is not named and the purposes are public. The trust deed will specify either a wide category of people, any of whom can be given funds, or a charitable purpose. The funds are controlled by the trustees. There's a bit more discussion under 'foundation' and 'charitable'. It's important to note that an organisation can be a trust without using the name 'trust', and it may be a trust without even knowing it. The lawyers have much more to say about all this, and I am not going to go into it in more detail here.


This isn't the place for a discussion of charity law. There are plenty of textbooks. But I will just try and sort out a few confusions, including some international ones.

First, 'charitable' is an adjective which can apply to a trust, a company, or a voluntary organisation with a constitution. So an organisation can be a charitable company or a charitable trust. It isn't correct to say: 'We're not a charity; we're a company'. You might well be both. If so, you'll have to obey both charity law and company law - until the Charities Act gets fully implemented and allows you to register as a 'charitable incorporated organisation', a single concept giving charities of all sorts the opportunity not just to be incorporated by to have limited liability too. (Keep reading for more on the Charities Act.)

Second, all charities are trusts. In a charitable company, the trustees are the company directors. In a charitable organisation with a constitution, the trustees will be the main management committee - whatever terminology is used in the constitution. But all trusts are not charities. Nor are all companies. And don't let's go into industrial and provident societies, some of which are charities and some not. (There's also 'ordinary trustees' and 'holding trustees' but that's getting way too complicated.)

Third, the basic concepts of 'charitable' in the UK are advancement of education, relief of poverty, advancement of religion, or 'other purposes that benefit the community'. To put an end to the years of shoehorning 'charities' into these four concepts, the new Charities Act, passed in late 2006, adds an overall 'public benefit' test and turns the four into twelve:
prevention or relief of poverty
advancement of education
advancement of religion
advancement of health and the saving of lives
advancement of citizenship or community development (including     rural or urban regeneration, and promotion of civic responsibility,       volunteering, the voluntary sector or the effectiveness or efficiency     of charities) - see community, below
advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science
advancement of amateur sport
promotion of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation
advancement of environmental protection or improvement
relief of those in need, by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage
advancement of animal welfare
any other purposes which were previously charitable, or are analogous to the above or anything previously charitable, or are analogous to the analogous. (No, the last one isn't a typing error - see subsection 2(4)(c) of the Act.)

We are waiting to find out when this change will come into effect. It isn't clear what it will do to the law in other countries that use the 'four heads' or their own variants of them.

A word of warning about using the word 'charitable' internationally.
 It isn't well understood, largely because English law has relied so long on the erratic development of case law. In the USA in particular, the word seems to mean direct activity in the health and welfare fields, eg running care homes, and it leans towards the older concept of alms-giving. And other countries seem to have their own takes, often because their own courts have taken divergent decisions from after gaining independence from Britain. The word 'charitable' is seen as old-fashioned, and it's probably one to avoid. 'NGO' or 'nonprofit organisation' are better understood.

And a another note to international readers: We Brits have a confusing habit of calling privately-run schools 'public schools'. Schools that are run by public authorities are called 'State schools'. And a note to Americans: The word 'State' means anything run by government, national or local. Unlike countries such as the USA, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Germany, Britain is not a federal country composed of provinces or 'states'. I'll now resist the temptation to go into devolution and regional government, except to record that 'Britain' is not the same as 'England', and the 'UK' is different again.

*PS in mid-2006: The Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 has adopted nearly all of the above too. Incidentally, I think I can claim some credit for the unwieldy name of the Scottish legislation. After trying for 11 years to get trustee investment law reformed, and eventually succeeding with the passage of the Trustee Act 2000 (and there was some tacit recognition behind the scenes that Parliamentary time might not have been found for this well-prepared Law Commission Bill but for pressure that I orchestrated), I pointed up the problem to the Scottish Parliament's enquiry commission into charity law that the Trustee Act did not apply in Scotland. They took the point, hence the '...and Trustee Investment...' bit. (During the 11 years, I had managed to persuade the House of Lords to include sections 38 and 39 in the Charities Act 1992. This was 'bad law' because these clauses applied across the UK (including Scotland), whereas the Charities Act applied only in England & Wales. But it was part of the death throes of the (UK-wide) Trustee Investments Act 1961 which the Trustee Act 2000 replaced.


A reader of this website asked me if I had a definition for 'community group'. It opened up a can of worms.

Community - This has acquired a reputation as a 'paste-on' word, applied to anything to make it sound good. 'Community education', 'community care', 'community policing', and 'the international community', are some of the more meaningless examples. Try imagining the opposite, eg education which is not in any sense 'community education'. You either get a nonsense (eg 'the national community'), or the attempt shows you just how dire was the institution that needed the image-improvement of having 'community' pasted onto its name (try 'non-community policing'). But 'community' does have genuine uses, though there is a dilemma to sort out first.

Community of place or Community of interest - 'Community' on its own, is usually taken to be a matter of geography, a community of place, It means the people in a small district, no larger than a local authority area (and you have to be a particularly careful with local authority areas like Birmingham or Glasgow, let alone London). Let's say it means a population numbered at most in thousands or tens of thousands. Larger communities tend to lack identity. For a start, they will tend to have more than one football team. But there are other communities, often with a similar size of population but geographically dispersed, and based instead on common interest, for example members of a particular minority ethnic group, or adherents of a less popular sport, or (less often) people with a particular disability. This does tend to get misused. The 'black community' is a common example, as if all black people are automatically bound together except as victims of racism, or the 'Islamic community' (who are easily numerous enough to have many doctrinal and non-doctrinal differences), and the cricketing community (try getting a Kent supporter to discuss things they have in common with the MCC (Middlesex Cricket Club)).

Community development - Far too much has been written about community development for me to join in. But let's say it is the fostering of people's involvement in community and collective self-help initiatives, in community organisations, and in representation and political activity that aims to advance the needs of the community. As indicated above, community development now has enough clout to be recognised as a charitable purpose, though I do wonder whether development in a wealthy community (the Mayfair Community Association, if such exists), really has the same cachet as in a disadvantaged one.

Community group - Any organisation that emerges in a community. People generally expect community groups to work on a not-for-profit basis. This is normally true, and it distinguishes them from other organisations which operate in the community. But at the smaller end of the scale, there are fuzzy edges. A community association's shop or bar is an example; it can't make a loss, and its trading is often a source of income for the parent association. And in smaller isolated communities, the 'community shop', 'community post office, or 'community bus' can be vital in ensuring that the 'community' continues to exist, and there may be a subsidy in free or undervalued labour, higher prices, or community involvement in what would elsewhere be purely commercially-driven initiatives. There is much more than could be said about 'social enterprise, and 'community businesses', and there is new legislation to help these along - the 'community interest company' as a new legal form, etc.

Community project - While looking into this issue, I discovered a statutory definition of the term 'community project', in the section of the Finance Act 2002 which sets up something called Community Investment Tax Relief. This sets out the sort of project that can ultimately benefit from CITR with the term 'community project', defined thus:

(a) public sector projects
(b) projects which benefit charities and other non-profit distributing bodies which are engaged entirely in public functions, non-competitive and non-commercial activity, or
(c) projects which are commercial in the sense that there is remuneration for the service provider and competition for their supply, but which are small-scale and purely local in nature.

Now, you can recognise (b) and (c), but the inclusion of (a) is a prime example of how legislation can be misused to distort the meaning of terms that have grown up from different roots.

Infrastructure jargon

All sectors have a bit of infrastructure, and the voluntary sector has some of its own. The main functions of infrastructure are written up in my paper on National Resource and Umbrella Organisations - which I did for the Treasury's 'Cross-cutting review' in 2001. You can get a copy here: Click on 'Things I've written' above, then go to the section 'On the Third Sector'.

Voluntary sector infrastructure has had to change its jargon several times, and there's all sorts of confusion - partly because some of the jargon has been so good that the government has been known to steal it (eg social services and its offshoot 'council of social service'). This little section explains all those odd terms like 'intermediary' and 'local development agency', and gives you a history of what is now called 'capacity building'.

You'll see that I prefer the terms 'resource and umbrella organisation'. I've sometimes been asked what the difference is. So let's start there:

A resource organisation provides technical support: anything from printing, computer back-up, cheap bulk purchase, to information and training. It may focus on one such service or the whole range. It may be local and general or national and specialist, or a mixture. It may be a voluntary organisation itself or a commercial body (and watch how the sparks fly when the commercial and voluntary resource organisations compete on price and quality!). A resource organisation may or may have democratic, user-based control. And if it is user-controlled, that doesn't mean it's cheaper or more efficient.

An umbrella organisation may or may not also be a resource organisation. Its key feature is that it will be in some way democratic. It will have a membership to whom it is responsive and accountable, normally through an elected board of trustees. It will provide a representative function, representing members to government, the commercial sector, the press and public, and to the rest of the third sector. And it will provide networking: many opportunities for members to meet and learn from each other. These may be training opportunities, conferences (with or without government speaker), or just a good old fun party (or 'reception', 'opening ceremony', 'presentation', 'launch'). The members will normally be voluntary organisations, but some allow government and bodies to join, and some admit individuals. Some are comprised entirely of individuals - see 'professional associations' below.

There's a lot more older jargon around these bodies. Until the late-1960s, a generalist local umbrella body would have been called a 'Council of Social Service' or CSS, and there was indeed a National Council of Social Service - NCSS. Then, every first-tier local authority acquired a 'Social Services Department' to replace the previous Children's Department and Old People's Department. So the voluntary organisations had to change the generic name to 'Council for Voluntary Service' or CVS. Anyone who calls it 'Council of Voluntary Service' or '...Services' has simply got it wrong.

But 'CVS' wasn't entirely satisfactory, as this was a period when CVSs were beginning to hive off their internal volunteer bureaux as separate organisations. The 'Service' bit didn't work, when the CVSs became much more interest in operating as umbrella organisations and promoting the voluntary 'sector' rather than in 'voluntary service' at an individual level. A range of names came into use: Voluntary Service Council, Voluntary Sector Forum, Voluntary Organisations Council. Eventually, NCSS became the 'National Council for Voluntary Organisations' - NCVO.

As time went on, some resource organisations sprung up to provide technical services to the sector, sometimes as rivals to the CVS. And there was devolution to specialist umbrella bodies like voluntary youth councils, Age Concerns, etc.

Also, some bodies appeared nationally which represented particular types of voluntary sector staff, notably chief executives (ACEVO), fund-raisers (ICFM - now the Institute of Fundraising), and finance directors (CFDG) - come on, you can work these acronyms out!) These were analogous to professional associations in other sectors, as - unlike umbrella organisations - they did not involve trustees. These three do however cast themselves as umbrella organisations and as part of the sector's infrastructure.

The impending change of government in 1979 led the voluntary sector to sponsor an independent review, chaired by Lord Wolfenden. The Wolfenden report (1978) made much of infrastructure, and gave birth to a new and confusing term:

Intermediary body

Nobody outside government liked this term! It confused two 'intermediary functions: 'intermediating' among voluntary organisations, ie networking, and 'intermediating' between voluntary organisations and government, ie being a negotiator with responsibilities to both sides. The voluntary sector wanted intermediary bodies to be accountable solely to the sector, but had made the mistake of allowing government bodies to join CVSs - at the time CVSs were the archetypal intermediary body and inviting the government in made CVSs seem more important - so open meetings inevitably became a sort of meeting ground. It was however an unequal ground, where government held the purse strings and where the sector could (and did) claim to be misunderstood and unfairly treated. The government also held the purse strings for the 'intermediary' bodies, and so, liking the Government's endorsement of the Wolfenden report, the sector acquiesced in the term 'intermediary body'. It took years to get rid of! Please don't resurrect it. 'Infrastructure body' will do just as well.

Local Development Agency

One of the Wolfenden Report's recommendations was that there should be central funding of 'intermediary bodies'. This took years to organise, a radical change of government intervening in 1979. But in 1985 a central fund was established under the name 'Local Development Agencies Development Fund' - what a name! I was its first and only co-ordinator. The 'Local Development Agency' was a bit of a rebellion against 'intermediary body', though not for great reasons of principle nor even because no-one understood what 'intermediary' actually meant. It came about because 'intermediary body' had become the synonym for CVSs, yet other bodies wanted to prove that they too performed some or all of Wolfenden's 'intermediary' functions. The functions included promoting volunteering, so the volunteer bureaux (by now independent in much greater numbers) wanted a slice of the central funding, and so did the settlements and social action centres. If there was funding going, then opening it up to the VB and SSAC networks meant quietly dropping the 'intermediary' term (which had become identified with CVSs), and replacing it with a new piece of jargon - the 'local development agency'. This was no better understood, and it was noticed that most of the funding now went to the members of the three networks CVSNA, NAVB and BASSAC (as they then were and one of them still is), so the term 'LDA' was in turn seen as over-identified with them and insufficiently generic. It barely outlasted the Fund. Over a longer period, and despite sometimes irritating uses of 'intermediary' by government and NCVO, 'LDA' came to be replaced by 'umbrella and resource organisations' and then by:

Capacity Building

Early in 2004, the Government announced a development programme for infrastructure, on the back of the 2002 Cross-cutting review. If infrastructure was actually going to be funded as 'infrastructure', the name would probably stick. It seemed to be as good a piece of jargon as any! And in July 2004, the Home Office announced the money for this infrastructure programme, under the title 'ChangeUp'. The ChangeUp programme was to support 'Capacity Building and Infrastructure Framework for the Voluntary and Community Sector', and thus a new term was introduced into the world of funding.
The Cross-cutting review was the first report to make much of 'capacity building', which it said was "about ensuring that VCOs have the skills, knowledge, structures and resources to realise their full potential". It went on "It is second tier activity [infrastructure] that supports front line delivery and typically involves removing barriers to involvement and investing to maximise the contribution that VCOs can make. It is as much about releasing existing capacity as about developing new capacity. "There are broadly four different kinds of capacity: organisational capacity, technical capacity to deliver specific services, infrastructure capacity, and community capacity."

The Home Office ChangeUp launch document (2004) defined capacity building as "empowering activity that strengthens the ability of voluntary and community organisations to build their structures, systems, people and skills so that they are better able to: define and achieve their objectives, engage in consultation and planning, manage projects, take part in partnerships, social enterprise and service delivery."

If you like splitting hairs you can find differences, but let's say the terms don't lend themselves to precise definitions, particularly where funding applications are being written!

Actually, the ChangeUp programme stimulated production of a range of regional and local Infrastructure Investment Plans covering the whole of England, which it was my pleasure to analyse two years later, with a team of fellow consultants, for the new agency Capacity Builders, which had taken over responsibility for the programme from the Home Office. So where it stands at the moment (Summer 2006) is that Capacity Builders is responsible for the ChangeUp programme which is funding infrastructure - though Capacity Builders is starting to challenge infrastructure organisations about whether they're good at capacity building. That feels like it belongs in next-year's chapter!


This is another word that causes confusion internationally. And this time, it's in the UK that it is seen as old fashioned. Here, philanthropy is usually taken to be something that wealthy people do. In the USA, the country where anyone can be wealthy, 'philanthropy' is often used to mean what Brits would call general charitable giving - which almost anyone can do. There's a bit of class/classlessness about it. Brits don't expect everyone to be philanthropic or to give to charity, and it's quietly accepted that some people can't. In the USA, you're not a proper citizen unless you give. There are advantages and disadvantages to both views.

Philanthropy is coming back into fashion, partly, one suspects, because Bill Gates has decided to be a philanthropist, and everyone has a computer. This is true even in the UK. (Perhaps that's the new definition of someone who can't be a philanthropist: someone who is too poor to own a computer! - but I digress.)

And as philanthropy becomes fashionable, so it's developing a sub-jargon of its own. Some of this is truly dreadful! (Try and work out what 'venture philanthropy' means, other than good old innovative/risky grant-making, investment in a good charitable cause, or money-lending! I don't mean to disparage anything that is done as 'venture philanthropy', but I really don't think there is a settled form of words which defines the term, and one notes that attempted definitions tend to be, well, rather wordy!) Anyhow, Philanthropy UK, which I helped set up, has a special philanthropy jargon buster.

One place 'philanthropy' won't catch on is Japan. This isn't because Japanese people, rich or poor, are fundamentally ungenerous. It's just that, as a Japanese colleague once told a workshop in a heartfelt tone, "philanthropy is a very difficult word for Japanese people to say", at least when they're speaking English! Try it in a Japanese accent, and you'll see what he meant!

Government programmes

The Labour governments of 1997-on seem to want to do something with the government machine, as distinct from their predecessors who seemed to want to want the government machine to do less, so they dismantled bits of it. This isn't the place for a 'small government-big government' discussion, but there is something about wanting to be seen to do something which leads to the creation of new programmes, which means new jargon. Or old programmes with new names, and sometimes new funding, which means new jargon. This was a break with the past, in which merged, reduced, downsized, programmes meant... new jargon.

In fact every time a minister did something, there was new jargon, until even they realised it was getting out of hand. The 'Area-based initiatives' review in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2002) seems to have happened because they realised that there were too many central government initiatives to encourage local action, and even the people who had invented them could not longer explain the differences or tell them apart.

In 2003, I was asked by a puzzled new voluntary sector network director if I could explain what various government programmes were about, partly for his own benefit but also for perplexed network members. He kept adding to the list. It wasn't too difficult to find out the ostensible answers - most government websites are pretty good at describing what they think their programme are about. But bringing them together produced far too long a list. There was little policy sense to be made - though credit should doubtless be given for good intentions, some new money, and a wish to engage and to be seen to do something. But names that were pure flights of fantasy would look just as plausible as the ones in use. I tried to make linguistic sense of them, which led me to write the following Name Generating Tool.  Pick one word from each column and the Tool will produce around 8000 three-word programme names.  It's frightening how many of them sound real.  The number actually being used runs well into three figures!  Can you tell which they are?

         Name Generating Tool

Action / Service
Capital / Investment
Inclusion / Liaison
Renewal / cohesion
Strategic / Structural
    Charity / Voluntary / Volunteer
    Civil / Public / Social
    Community / Area / Local /
    Neighbourhood / Residents’
    National / Government /
    Regional / European /
    Scottish / Welsh / N Ireland
    Family / Childrens
    Health / Education /
    Employment / Housing
    Race / Gender Equality /
    Disability discrimination
    Rural / Urban
    Sustainable / Single
Fund / Pilot
Plan / Zone
Unit / Body


Having ruminated at various places in this Jargon Buster about differences between British and American English, for example over terms like 'philanthropy', 'charitable', and 'non-profit', I thought it would be helpful to list a few other terms commonly used in the respective non-profit (or nonprofit) sectors which have different meanings, including a few that really confuse the international grant-seeking / grant-making process.

Confusing word or concept






Vice-President, Patron



Operational head



Deputy operational head



Lay supervisors with legal responsibility



Person who presides at their meetings


Managing trustee or director






Remuneration through employment


Supernumerary staff member working as part of their education (normally without pay or on low pay)


Grant-maker funded by appeals / with elected board / established by legislation


Grant-maker established by an individual or company


Request for grant


Invitation to prepare applications / program(me) launch


Monitoring questionnaire


Person operationally responsible for a field of grant-making



Staff who assess grant applications



Grant which aims to lead by example



Staff member or volunteer who seeks funds

UK usage


Ceremonial post.
Normal duties limited to chairing Annual Meeting


No normal duties.
Appearance of name on a list helps credibility and fundraising


Chief Executive,


Deputy Chief Executive,
Deputy Director,
Divisional Head


Trustees or Trustee Board



Chair, Chairman, etc


Such a post is not normally allowed in a charity if the trustee is paid, even though the concept is commonplace in non-charitable companies and is allowed in community interest companies.



Staff salaries


Student placement




Appeal / Public appeal



Trust or foundation



Grant application


Publication of guidelines



Monitoring report


Programme Head



Grants Officer



Pilot grant




US usage


No equivalent
The US meaning is entirely different - See below


No equivalent



Executive Director


Vice President,
Executive Vice-President


Board, Directors



Board Chair, Chairman, etc


President - See above












Public foundation



Private foundation



Grant proposal


Request for proposals (RfP)



Report form


Program Officer




Program Officer



Demonstration grant



Development Officer


As I said at the beginning, the third sector doesn't have much of a sense of humour.  I think it's something to do with desperately wanting to be taken seriously.

I once brought a heavy negotiation in a serious meeting to an awful silence by cracking a joke.  At the time I thought it was quite a good one – about a possible conspiracy between two tall gentlemen present; their names suggested ethnic origins respectively in Scotland and the Friesian Islands, so I proposed calling them “Big Mac and Large Fries” – yes, I know, it wasn’t that good a joke!  The meeting, apparently dumbfounded, broke for tea almost immediately, which was probably the best move at that particularly tiresome stage of negotiation.  One of my colleagues said with mock gravitas (at least I think it was mock; it sounded dull and pained!): “You’re not allowed to crack jokes”.  Months afterwards, another participant remarked that my joke was the only memorable, and probably the only worthwhile, product of that entire series of meetings - to which I was later voted into the chair, no doubt as punishment for flippancy.  (The aforementioned Mr Fries, former Chief Charity Commissioner Richard Fries, took it in good part, gamefully ignoring the technicality that his name is pronounced 'freess', and mentioning that he had once found himself listed alphabetically just after someone called 'French' - causing great amusement to the official who was checking the register.)


Where in the third sector can you find a joke?:

It's the sentence immediately before the government minister pauses during his speech at your AGM.  And yes, it usually is a ‘him’, and even if it isn’t, the speech was probably written by a ‘him’.  Not that women can’t be funny; it’s just that women ministers and civil servants, too often and unnecessarily, seem to feel the need to show that they’re competent and serious, whereas men take their competence/seriousness for granted but have to show they’re ‘one of the lads’ or members of the human race.  So a joke in a man's speech is essential whereas in a woman's it is thought counterproductive.  The male minister won’t necessarily know it’s a joke, as the script is quite likely just to say ‘pause’ or, should the civil service author deem it necessary, ‘pause for laughter’.  As a polite audience member, especially if you're keenly interested in the new funding you hope the minister will announce, you instinctively recognise that laughing on cue is much better than staying silent.

The voluntary sector’s propensity to take itself too seriously certainly demands laughter on such occasions.  In this, the sector and male government members are at one.  But the sector's unwillingness to make jokes of its own, for fear of not being taken seriously, gives it common ground with female ministers.  (And I make no judgement about the real relative competence/seriousness of the ministers of either gender.)  I could ruminate further about ministerial jokes tending not to be cracked in the presence of journalists, whose irony-deficiency can make even mild light-heartedness a real danger zone.

As I found out, you can get away with bringing jokes into serious business.  This may also apply internationally, but there are special risks.  A joke I tried out in a speech in Argentina produced complete silence; I don’t think it was the audience’s problem, but rather that the otherwise faultless Embassy translator didn’t understand it ‑ presumably being too used to international diplomacy, another joke-free zone.

As a consultant, I go to far fewer meetings these days, and those that I do attend seem so often in need of some levity.  With my fee at risk, I don't always dare!  But try it!  In all seriousness, it lightens the atmosphere.  Don't do the nasty jokes that laugh at people, but laugh at your problems.  Laugh together!  It helps!


Serious jargon

I've covered some of my favourite jargon here, and some words, eg foundation, I don't think you'll find a better definition anywhere.  But jargon abounds, and there's far more than I can cover.  If there's a third sector phrase that's really bugging you, try the Guardian Society website's glossary at www.societyguardian.co.uk/glossary and the one on philanthropy I mentioned above, or a newish one from Charities Aid Foundation.  If that doesn't work, contact me and I'll have a go.  But do keep your sense of humour!