- Posted April 4, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Impact Your World
Yes, End Non-Profits and Support Social Purpose Organizations
All of this started by an article I wrote about Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise when his book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, was recently published. By the way, I think he is incredibly inspirational and his book is now on The New York Times Bestseller List. Essentially, he stated that the biggest mistake non-profits made was owning the word “non-profit”.
Since then, I have been in a spirited debate about the non-profit/NGO sector and ending the “non” speak. In other words, ending the use of “non-profit” or “NGO”, which is simply the sector’s tax designation in the United States, and moving to frame it in a positive context, because words do matter. In the course of the online and offline discussions I have had people tell me, for example:
- Board members have looked to cut into organizational budgets, because they were under the mistaken idea that a “non-profit” had to have no surplus revenue. Yes, that is a true story.
- The “non” speak hurts them as it relates to compensation with donors and board members thinking professionals need to make as little as possible despite the fact they have advanced degrees and typically work 10-12 hour days.
- Professional development or infrastructure investment is often a non-starter because people do not want to give to “overhead”, which we know of in the business as the “non-profit starvation cycle”, which was discussed in an article by the Standford Social Review and you can find here.
Generally, I have had professionals and donors in the industry agree that we need to move away from what I call the “non” speak. There is definitely a ground swell there and it just needs to be harnessed in some way. There are a good many people who have given their professional lives to the industry and they believe that we need to make that paradigm shift. However, I have also had private messages to me by professionals in the field telling me to stop wasting time and resource on nonsense. They have told me privately or publicly “it’s too ingrained, we will never agree, this is not a relevant discussion that impacts the day to day”, etc. I have been told to let the status quo remain because there are so many burning issues and this is just an “academic exercise”. But, I do not believe I am wrong and I know there are a whole lot of professionals and donors out there who have been commenting in social media on what Adam Braun and others have stated before me and they agree, words matter and it makes a difference.
In my discussions, my colleagues have enlightened me as to the some formal and some not so formal initiatives underway to transform the sector – beginning with the name. It is splintered at the moment, but there is definite thought and energy around changing the name and then changing so many other things about the sector itself, which I will probably address in due course. But for the purposes of this article, there are people already out there calling the industry: social profit, for purpose, social purpose, public benefits, community benefit or social enterprise, etc. All of this is not to say whatsoever that the for-profit sector does not do anything social or is not “for purpose”. Of course, anyone doing an honest day’s work, rich or poor, young or old, produces value and serves a purpose in their work – whatever that may be. Again, this is simply to say that we need to end the “non” profit speak.
We need to work together with our supporters to define ourselves – or others will do it for us. As I was writing this article, I saw a Huffington Post piece by Gabriel Mizrahi entitled “Should We Donate Our Money to Private Companies?” If you read the article, you will find that Larry Page, the Co-Founder of Google thinks so because charities can be less efficient as opposed to companies in allocating resources. So, while some of us may have our “tin cup” in hand asking for donations, big business is already changing the conversation looking to do social purpose at larger scale and speaking about investment. I alluded to this in several posts, which you can find here and here about companies changing their business models or approaches to things in order to make great social impact. Do, I think this is a zero-sum game? No, but I also see donors and the general public wanting to be associated with a “winning” strategy. “Non” speak sets the tone, in my opinion.
If you think positioning does not matter, I read Ethan Ohs’ article, “Charities need to recognise their worth and start thinking like a business” in The Guardian because, essentially, we are a business. Take note, this discussion is not only happening in the United States, but also in the UK. And I also read Tulani Elisa’s piece, “Non-Profits and Social Media: Believe it or Not, Your Non-Profit Is a Brand” in the Huffington Post, which actually made me a little sad. The article speaks to how non-profits need to understand they are a brand. If non-profits need to think of themselves as a brand, shouldn’t the whole sector be doing so as well?
Finally, during the course of all of this, I met a new colleague in George McCully, President, Catalogue for Philanthropy in Massachusetts and author of Philanthropy Reconsidered: Private Initiatives – Public Good – Quality of Life. I believe he is also a historian, because he told me the term “non-profit” is only recent. He educated me to the fact, “It was first used by The New York Times in 1915, then in a book title in 1937; in a doctoral dissertation title in 1959; then in 7 such in the ’60s, 49 in the ’70s, 238 in the ’80s (when it was first used as a noun) and up from there – academic social scientists really popularized it, because they saw a “third sector” – not government, not business – that they could use to describe “civil society”". He went on to tell me that, “The word and concept of “philanthropy” originated on line 11 of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound…”, which he describes in his book and in a Wikipedia article on philanthropy.
I hope my colleagues, donors and volunteers who believe that the name change is important to the positioning of the whole industry help lead discussions in their own organizations or groups, especially seeing as we may soon be in increased competition with the for-profit sector for “investment” and it seems they are already well on their way to changing the narrative. As Sonia Johnson said,”We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history”.
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Posted: April 3, 2014
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