February 12, 2018

Decoding development jargon

Capacity building. Theory of change. Sustainability. This is the ultimate dictionary to help you make sense of what your colleagues are talking about. After all, someone's got to understand what these words really mean.

2 min read

Capacity building: helping build better CVs for the ‘capacity builders’, with minimal risk of actual support to grantee organisations.

Passion: the alternative currency that is supposed to compensate for the lack of a living wage for development sector professionals.

Unrestricted grant: a great idea that each funder supports in theory, but is reluctant to commit to themselves.


Disruptive technology: my organisation has an app with 52 downloads on iOS and Google Play (combined).

Theory of change: using flowcharts, arrows and jargon with 5X consulting person-hours leading to significantly increased complexity (output) leading to minimum questions from the board & 10X increased chances of funding (outcomes) – because no one wants to say “I don’t get it”.

Diversity: taking on children of multiple funders and would-be funders as interns, not just one.

Diversity take 2: taking on graduates of multiple US liberal arts colleges.

In-kind contribution: advice (that may or may not include actual volunteering) from donors that you have to say yes to, even when you’d rather just get cash.

Founder-driven: we love opinions, as long as they are exactly in line with ours.

Multi sectoral programmes: what funders love to talk to each other about, but never actually partner to make happen because you know, causation over correlation.

Sustainability: every single programme in this country will work through the government in the next three to five years.

Annual report: a report that comes out long enough after the year in question that no one looks at it carefully.

Social innovation: I have a food delivery venture, but with a social motive – I make negative profits, but I provide healthy, organic food to the world (hipsters are so reluctant to pay).

Exit strategy: determining the right time to cash out of my food delivery venture with a social motive – just before people discover I have no concept of unit economics.


Want more? You can find another set of decoded development jargon here.

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Karan Malik

Karan Malik is Head of Programmes-India, British Asian Trust. Previously, he worked with the Social Impact and Development Practice at Boston Consulting Group. Prior to that, he worked on issues relating to maternal and child health and adolescent girl empowerment at Dasra. Karan has also worked with PRS Legislative Research and the Singapore Economic Development Board. He has a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University, where he focused on International Development.