The hottest topic of debate in foundation circles nowadays is the merits of venture capitalism (or in some versions, investment banking) as a metaphor for smart philanthropy.

The debate is not mainly about vocabulary or writing style, but about a real substantive question: Are grantmakers a species of investor, building benevolent enterprises that produce a measurable return for society, or are they more passive enablers of good, seeking mainly to support those who pursue charitable ends by whatever path.

That is a thorny philosophical matter far beyond the boundaries of this essay. We therefore approach the word VENTURE warily, not as a way of settling the “venture philanthropy” debate, but as a window through which to view a broader phenomenon: the wholesale importation of financial palaver into the glossary of public and civic affairs.

The starched-collar solemnity of VENTURE is ironic, considering that the word is a medieval foreshortening (probably accidental) of ad -venture, with all the derring-do that implies. For some centuries, VENTURE had a cavalier, throw-of-the-dice quality-it meant random chance, or risk, or, in some senses, hazard. It came into its modern business meaning through the portals of risk: the word initially described the work of those devil-may-care visionaries (later ENTREPRENEURS) whose more far-fetched business ideas took on the qualities of an adventure, a sort of safari into the jungles of commerce.

These days, at least among foundations, it has acquired almost the opposite meaning. To be a true venture, an idea now has to be gravely responsible, supported with all the prudent INFRASTRUCTURE of a well-oiled organization, with precise METRICS of return, particularly if it is a SOCIAL venture. It must have CAPACITY, or else get TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE and keep all its STAKEHOLDERS confident and content. Sort of drains the adventure right out of the thing, doesn’t it?

The popularity of these words is only partly an outgrowth of the recent “venture philanthropy” debate. Before anyone ever suggested venture capitalism as a model for the modern foundation, all these business terms (VENTURE included) were already floating about the charitable ether, haphazardly sticking to any undertaking more ambitious than a grammar school bake sale. Sometime in the 1980s, talking like financiers started making people feel responsible and prudent (perhaps it did the same for financiers, as their institutions crumbled about them). At the same time, public attitudes toward foundations and nonprofit institutions were growing more skeptical. Thus did the bankers’ jargon increasingly become a bromide for queasy grantmakers.

Today, this pilfered vocabulary might actually be more relevant, and certainly more interesting, if it could regain some of its lost connotations of peril. The fact is that many of the most urgent callings of modern philanthropy entail risks that would make an ordinary business start-up look like a license to print money. The odds of achieving, say, a lasting recovery for a cocaine addict, or steady employment for a person with no experience and few basic skills, or a safe and healthy upbringing for kids in dangerous neighborhoods-now those are ventures, in the chanciest old meaning of the word.

In the tired vocabulary of “venture” and “return” and “investment” and the like, it is the genteel, leather-armchair quality that offends. At its best, philanthropy is an adventure, with its first syllable fully intact and all its hazards out in the open. Foundations can accept the risks or avoid them, as they see ?t, but hiding them behind a suite of oak paneling gains nothing-except to take some of the fun, and much of the virtue, out of their work.

To be fair, some foundations do maintain “venture funds” designed expressly for grants that lie somewhere outside the foundations’ normal bounds of safety and familiarity. When the intended meaning includes that sense of unusual risk, the word plays exactly the role for which it was designed. Unfortunately for those foundations, most readers are by now so accustomed to seeing the word used in the stodgy sense of “businesslike operation” and “responsible enterprise” that they are unlikely to detect any more daring intent.

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