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A Hard Lesson with an Important Result: Wording, Audiences, and Grantee Consent

I was hired to work for Oak Foundation as its first full-time communications employee in 2011. At that time we had a pretty ugly website, in most humble opinions. It had a giant map of the world and lots of web pages with lists of grant descriptions. It was impossible to find anything. Most partners I interviewed about our website said that it was intimidating and did not have enough information. Those opinions were backed up by the results of a Grantee Perception Survey conducted at that time.

The first job I had was to clean up our website and the result is the website we have today, which has a searchable grant database. (We are in the process of developing a new website at the moment, but that’s a story for another article.)

In redoing our website, we uploadedOakConsent all of our grants to our website from an excel list extracted from our internal grant management system. A few months after the initial launch of our website, our grant descriptions were being quoted on a hostile blogger’s website. The blogger interpreted the descriptions as ambiguous and inflammatory.

Shocked by these accusations, one Friday afternoon at 5:00pm, I decided to compare the grant descriptions in our grant database to the grant descriptions in our annual reports. Could they be different? Yes, in fact, they were! The descriptions on our website were the unedited versions of our grants.

Grant descriptions in our annual reports had been framed for external audiences through edits by programme directors and the President. In some cases, the descriptions were essentially the same even with the edits; in other cases, the edits were critical in clarifying the meaning of the grant (e.g. one unedited grant said “to create a perception of economic risk…” while the edited grant said “to raise awareness of the economic risks…”).  In this example and many others, the edited grant description was the most appropriate and accurate one to share with external audiences.

The possibility that the descriptions on our website didn’t match the descriptions in our annual reports had never crossed my mind. Needless to say, I could hardly sleep that weekend. I went into my boss’ office on Monday morning and told her the news. Since the grant descriptions in our online database were incorrect and not the most accurate descriptions, we decided to change them back to the versions in our annual reports.

I then spent the next few weeks correcting our website by painfully cutting and pasting the correct language from our annual reports into the database. We submitted an apology on our website and moved on.

I learned many valuable lessons from that experience:

  • every word counts — while a word may have one meaning to me and my colleagues, it certainly may mean different things to the organisations we support or bloggers that we don’t support;
  • situations change — words interpreted as appropriate language one day can be interpreted as anti-development, aggressive, hostile, or illegal at a later date (e.g., to “advocate” vs. to “lobby” in the United States), and this is hard to predict; and
  • systems are important — our grant descriptions for public communications need to be stored in a place that can’t be confused with internal communications.

In comparing our foundation to many other foundations, I have noticed that we say a lot about our grants in terms of word count — our grant descriptions are approximately 75 words, while many other foundations have just a few words or at most a few sentences. In addition, our grant database is the most visited place on our website. I have had many compliments on how easy it is to find information that helps organisations understand what we fund.

We value our transparency; nevertheless, we also need to consider how we may be helping or hindering the work of our partners through the words we use to describe them. This is especially true for human rights defenders around the globe working in challenging environments. In 2013, upon the advice of colleagues in our International Human Rights Programme and based on lessons learned from the launch of our grant database in 2011, we created a designated place in our internal grant management system to keep our grant descriptions and added in a few important steps in the publishing process.

The steps are as follows: (1) programme officers draft the grant descriptions; (2) an editor and I edit the grant descriptions for style and language; (3) Heads of Programmes and the President review the grant descriptions; and (4) finally, and critically, partners review the grant descriptions. The grant language review process helps us to protect the reputations, strategies, and security of our partners. In our email to our partners, we ask them if they have security concerns and language corrections.  We also ask our partners whether they feel comfortable if we publish the grant.

In the end, we may never stop bloggers from commenting negatively about our partners. However, we can feel confident that we have not communicated in a vacuum. We are proud of our partners’ work and we will continue to ask for their permission as the years go on. Our partners certainly appreciate it and we can sleep better (well, at least I can!) knowing that we have taken the time to consider their perspective and voice­.


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