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And the Award Goes To: The Arcane Language of Philanthropy

January 9, 2016

“I like good strong words that mean something.”

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


One of the questions I often get is: what's the difference between an award, a prize and a grant? It's a great question, and perhaps at one time it would have been easier to answer. Now—not so much. 


Here's the way it used to work way back in the 20th century:  An award was something given to honor someone for their actions (an Academy Award, Peabody Award, etc.). It's an acknowledgment of one or more specific achievements.


A prize was given to the winner of a competition (both formal contests and informal challenges), and generally it was for something that's already accomplished (the Nobel Prize, Goldman Environmental Prize, etc.). Prizes often—but not always—are given as the result of a competition, but sometimes the competition is not a public process. You might submit a photograph in hopes of winning a contest (e.g. the Solas Photography Prize), or, if you're lucky, you might be nominated by others for a prize like the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.


Finally, a grant was given for something you say you'll do in the future ("my next big thing"). Often a person's past work is considered when a grant application is reviewed, but the funding is almost always for work yet to be done. 


Grants usually involve a gift of cash (mostly with various strings attached), and some awards and prizes provide cash as well. But some awards and prizes provide only recognition, which certainly has a value but is not the same as money in the bank. In all cases, the person on the receiving end is usually "awarded" the accolade. This is where it gets really confusing.


The word "award" is sometimes used in different contexts as a noun and as a verb. For example, it's not unusual to read that someone was "awarded" a grant ("Terri Weifenbach was just awarded a Guggenheim grant.").  But a prize can be given as an "award". So, is it just the difference between saying "toe-may-toe" vs "toe-mah-toe", or is something else going on?


In today's world, it safe to say there are no clear separations between the definitions of an award and a prize. They're both given for past achievements. For the most part grants are still in that future-looking category, although that line is mostly a semantic construction. For example, Wikipedia says that the "MacArthur Fellows Program...or 'Genius Grant' is a prize awarded annually...." So there you have "award", "grant" and "prize" all blended in one sentence.


It doesn't do much good to look at the intentions behind these programs for any clues. Take a look at the International Photography Awards, which have as their mission "to salute the achievements of the world's finest photographers, to discover new and emerging talent and to promote the appreciation of photography." Compare that with the MacArthur Fellows Program, which "celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships." Linguists might say they're both talking about the same concept, although the former is more focused and the latter is more broadly-based.


If that's not confusing enough, over the past decade terms like "prize philanthropy" and "incentive prizes" have been added into the mix. Right now there is no standard definition of what those words are supposed to mean when they're combined, and the perplexity has escalated now that those terms have become somewhat mainstream. It doesn't help that philanthropy itself is a many-figured Chimera composed of whatever origins and intents you can imagine. 


It comes down to this: philanthropy, like every other practice, has its own buzzwords, terminology and inner workings. Ultimately philanthropists and corporations are free to call their particular brand of giving whatever they like, and the various governing bodies involved don't really care until someone decides to trademark a name.


If you're still trying to sort this out, here's the best advice I can offer. Most of us have heard the famous line that Shakespear's Juliet spoke to Romeo, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But few know his reply back to Juliet: "I take thee at thy word."  When applying for an award, a grant or a prize, read the intentions of the sponsors but try not to dwell on what specific words mean. If you win, it will smell just as sweet no matter what name they put on it.


Tim Greyhavens

January 2016

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