Initiative

Gone, we presume, are the days when parents clucked at their children, “You lack initiative!” Surely no one lacks initiative anymore. INITIATIVES are everywhere, common as crabgrass.

Practically every police station has an anti-drug initiative, churches have youth initiatives, city halls have clean-streets initiatives, and California civic groups cook up ballot initiatives by the score for every Election Day. But no one has more initiatives than foundations-at least one, it seems, for every area of human endeavor.

To be fair, the word attracts more derision among editors and other language watchdogs than it deserves. It is most often used merely as a synonym for “effort,” “activity,” or “project.” It is pretty much a fair trade for any of those words, which are themselves fairly vague and unambitious. Whether something is called “The Welfare Project” or “The Welfare Initiative” is really a matter of indifference.

INITIATIVE is not really jargon at all, in fact-it wears its meaning (minimal as that may be) on its sleeve, with nothing deceptive or obscure or falsely implied. It is really just jargon’s humbler cousin, a cliché. We include it here mostly because, as clichés go, INITIATIVE has turned into something of a juggernaut, and to many foundation writers and editors, it is becoming annoying. There are, after all, other perfectly good terms that boast less tentative meanings than INITIATIVE-which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a beginning or introductory step; an opening move.” But those other words-”project,” “venture,” “drive,” “enterprise”-are in overly wide use already, and most lack the sheer pluck of INITIATIVE.

Anyone who comes up with a good alternative is sure to be hoist onto the shoulders, metaphorically at least, of communications staff in foundations everywhere. Meanwhile, though, INITIATIVE is here to stay.

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