Friday, October 05, 2007

You say tomato, I say tomah-to...

Names matter. What we call things matters. Ask George Lakoff. Or Karl Rove. Or Louis Armstrong.

There is growing agreement that "nonprofit sector" is the wrong name, so what is the right name? Paul Shoemaker, a careful reader of Alliance Magazine, points out these three possibilities, all posited in the October issue:
Those who wish to change the name - so that the sector is no longer defined by what it is not - should come up with one option, not three. Actually, there are more than three - independent sector and nongovernmental organizations come to mind. Bill Drayton is usually identified as a social entrepreneur - where does that fit into the discussion?

What term do you use? How would you go about getting agreement on - and widespread use of - a single new term?


The Green Skeptic said...

I'm a poet by training, so words are important to me.

I don't know exactly when Kay Sprinkel Grace and I started our conversation on this topic, probably about a decade ago.

We began with a debate about "public benefit organization." (This has its origins with Peter Drucker.)

But Kay has promoted and I prefer "public benefit corporation." Why? Because, well, "non-profits" are corporations and the term sets the tone for a more business-like approach: accountability, clear strategy, transparent financial management.

Since joining Ashoka a month ago, Bill Drayton has suggested I use "citizen sector."

I'm resisting. Why? Because I don't like the term. It sounds like the partisans storming the gate and feels a little like "People's Party." (A little too hard to take for a social capitalist.)

It also implies a looseness that I'd rather not see in the sector.

We don't need "citizens" running our social benefit organizations (another variation). What we need is more professionals and better management. Citizen just doesn't speak to it.

Over a year and a half ago, a lively thread at Social Edge started on the subject, which I closed last September with the suggestion "social benefit corporation":

But let's face it; it ain't gonna be easy to get people to drop non-profit.

Perhaps we should focus on what we do, rather than trying to change being defined by what we are not.

Do we protest too much?

Unknown said...

Hi Lucy,

If the objection to "nonprofit" is that it is "defined by what it is not," then "nongovernmental organizations" doesn't really seem like a remedy, does it?

The difficulty in eliminating the term "nonprofits" is that it has tremendous "brand equity." Ask a donor for support, and what will they ask? Whether you are a nonprofit. How many nonprofit executives want to answer, "No, we're. . ."?

best wishes

StephanieMcA said...

It does take time to shift the way we speak, and think, but we have seen it happen (Personnel evolves to Human Resources). To make the shift I think we each have to use something that works for us, influence our institutions to communicate differently and then see what spreads and sticks.