I was at an interesting Seattle Social Venture Partners event tonight for a discussion on philanthropy. Doug and Maggie Walker very openly shared their journey along the path of giving their time and money towards their passions.
One of the words that seemed to keep jumping out at me tonight was the term “non-profit.”
Some of this might have been because I’m still processing the thought-provoking new book I just finished called Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta which researches the origins of why we think of and require charities to be not-for-profit organizations. Dan discovered that the non-profit mandate is an American invention which came out of early American Puritan (Christian) doctrine. Puritans believed in the “depravity of man” and so worried that growing materialism would lead to “worldliness” and corruption. So, they instituted charity as a penance for making money. “So, how could you possibly make money helping the poor if helping the poor was your penance for making money?”
So, today we talk about “the non-profit sector” and the predominant description and defining characteristic of charities is that they are “non-profit”. Why do we focus on this? Why do we focus on what they’ve “not” vs. what they “are”?
There have been attempts to refer to charities as “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs). But again, why the “non” emphasis?
Alternatively, we describe charities as 501c3’s (based on IRS section which authorizes their tax treatment). But, we don’t refer to attempting-to-earn-profit companies predominantly as “C Corps”, “S Corps” and other government technical descriptions, do we?
Automobiles were once called horseless carriages. But that didn’t last too long because they were important enough to get their own defining category.
I think language matters. By constantly referring to charities as “non-profits” or “NGOs” we are continuing to re-enforce the belief that these organizations … many of whom are seeking to solutions to the largest and most important social challenges of our generation … as 2nd class citizens or somehow not that important.
I have been as guilty as anyone of this language issue. So, I’ve decided to take a small step and to stop using the terms “non-profit”, “not-for-profit” and “NGO” and to start experimenting with new language which is more positive and reflective of the importance and value of charities.
I’m going to experiment with terms like “for benefit organizations” and “social enterprises” and other terms. I’m not sure what term will “win out”, but I’m interested in the feedback and reactions of people as I start on this new language trail.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the question about why charities can’t earn profits… (I know they can technically do so in some circumstances, but it gets pretty complicated with IRS)