How The Circle Got Its Name

What was the Circle on Aboriginal Grantmaking in Canada is now the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. What appears to be a minor change of a few words was a very interesting, collaborative learning process reflective of the efforts of Circle members.

It was decided that the Circle on Aboriginal Grantmaking was constrained by the limitations of the word “grantmaking” which is unidirectional (from one to the other), unidimensional (the giving of money), and purely transactional.

The Circle needed a new identity that would embrace a deeper understanding of interactions that are reciprocal (both giving and receiving), multidimensional (the sharing of ideas, time, talent, resources), and relational.

On the surface it may seem that the new name isn’t far from the old, however it captures a truer spirit of the Circle in a few significant ways: it introduces the idea of philanthropy as distinct from grantmaking going back to the original definition of philanthropy as the love of humankind[1]; it distinguishes Aboriginal Peoples in their own right and not as a qualifier to one of the other elements of the name; it places both philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, not of Canada, or for Canada. It also maintains the symbolism of the circle which has many diverse and complex associations, not the least of which is the circle of life, the four directions, the change of seasons.

Last but not least is the importance of the word “on” –  this is “the Circle on” not “the Circle of,” a distinction that is perhaps subtle but important and hopefully welcoming to all those who may wish to participate.

It’s also worth noting, as they say, that it’s not always the destination but the journey. We discovered along the way that language isn’t perfect, that English is prone to “radical nounism” whereas aboriginal languages animate their thoughts, names, and concepts more often with verbs, that none of our English terms – aboriginal, indigenous, First Nations – are exactly right as they are imposed terminologies, and that there is tension in bridging cultures and dealing with the imperfections of the spoken and written word. So we decided on an imperfect but thoughtful name that holds in it all the best of what we envision the Circle to be.

Finally, a note about the logo. If you look carefully at the logo, you will note that the circle is not perfect. This denotes the importance of cyclical as opposed to linear thinking in identifying opportunities for all treaty people in Canada. In this sense the task is to complete the circle.


[1] It is generally agreed that the word “philanthropy” comes from a Greek story from 2500 years ago. In the story Prometheus Bound, primitive creatures that were created to be humans lived in caves, in the dark, in constant fear for their lives. Zeus, the tyrannical king of the gods, decided to destroy them, but Prometheus, a Titan warrior whose name meant “forethought,” out of his “philanthropos tropos” or “humanity-loving character” gave the creatures two empowering, life-enhancing, gifts: fire, symbolizing all knowledge, skills, technology, arts, and science; and “blind hope” or optimism. The new word, philanthropos, combined two words: philos, “loving” in the sense of benefitting, caring for, nourishing; and anthropos, “human being” in the sense of “humankind”, “humanity”, or “human-ness”. What Prometheus evidently “loved”, therefore, was their human potential—what they could accomplish and become with “fire” and “blind hope”. The two gifts in effect completed the creation of humankind. (See McCully, George: Philanthropy Reconsidered, A Catalogue for Philanthropy Publication, Boston, 2008; and Sulek, Marty: On the Classical Meaning of Philanthropia, in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly OnlineFirst, March 13, 2009)

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