What's in a name?

The speech towards the end of the film ‘I Daniel Blake’ included the statement:

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user”

It is a powerful reminder of the importance of words when used as labels. Anyone who has felt processed when trying to access their rights or a service can relate to how Daniel Blake feels. But exactly what to call ‘the people that a charity is set up to support’ is a problem. You need to call them something in your communications, but however factual or descriptive the chosen term may appear, the word can easily become a loaded, political and contested label.

The different words used for the people supported include clients, service users, members, companions, customers, mentees. There are lots of debates about which is the ‘right’ term to use. For example, some say that ‘service user’ is a useful, neutral term whilst others state that it is too impersonal and does not imply any relationship. When shortened to ‘user’ it has negative associations with substance misuse or someone manipulating others to get what they want.

Which words get used also changes over time. In grant making, there are a range of terms for the one with the money: funder, grant maker, philanthropist, investor. Although potentially neutral terms, the first two convey a more traditional approach. The latter two seem to be on the increase and suggest a more current and engaged approach. Calling yourself a philanthropist, social investor or impact investor seems to be more exciting and carry more status. Traditional funders now talk about investing in those supported e.g. the Arts Council “we invest in art and culture for a lasting return”. This could be a passing fashion or a genuine shift to deeper and more equal partnerships between funder and funded.

There don’t seem to be many different terms used for those getting the funding. They are mainly referred to as grant holders, grant recipients or grantees. It will be interesting to see if new terms come which describe those funded more as ‘partners’. And what I think we really need is a new term for those who benefit from the grant, the ‘beneficiaries’. Again, this is a descriptive term but I have yet to meet anyone who describes themselves in this way and it brings to mind a real Victorian sense of the deserving poor deriving good from a distant ‘benefactor’. It is very much someone on the receiving end and not an active agent contributing their assets. So we are back to what to call them: clients, service users, citizens, stakeholders etc?

Given we do need to use something to describe people, I think it is important that charities check the term they use with those they support. My practice is to ask each charity I visit what they call their service users/members/clients and trust that they have checked that this really is the stated preference of those described. It still leaves me with the unsatisfactory term ‘beneficiary’ so if you have any suggestions for a better word, then please do get in touch.