Wednesday, February 28, 2007

We need a new name

I'm heading to the Charleston, South Carolina area (I know, rough duty eh?) for a foundation board meeting and annual planning retreat, so no dot-org posts for a few days. Tonight I come a-ruminatin' about the idea that this sector still hasn't found the right label for itself.

"Non-profit", or more formally "not-for-profit", is a lousy name for at least two reasons. The narrower one is that it's actually a bit misleading, it's sounds as if such organizations aren't allowed to or don't intend to run in the black financially. That's obviously silly if you think about it (a financial goal of exact break-even is hardly practical from year to year, and no form of enterprise that loses money every year survives for long), but it's what the label sounds like. In fact what financially distinguishes a legal not-for-profit entity is what can be done with any profits: they can only be put back into the enterprise. So the legal term is missing a couple of words, it would literally be "not-for-any-individual's-profit organization." (Even many folks working in the field don't seem to quite get that.)

But that's the less-important problem with "non-profit"; the more important one is that it defines us entirely by what we are not. It tells no one anything about what we do, or why, or how, or anything. In contrast, a label like "government" is descriptive, it refers to entities which govern. The label "business" also says what the entity does not what it doesn't do or isn't. ("Corporate" has other problems, not least of them being that in most U.S. states it technically includes all non-profits.)

The terms "civil society" and "civic sector" have been proposed in various places but not really caught on, and I doubt that they will. For one thing they're quite arrogant phrasings, implying that everyone working in every other sector is something other than civil or civic. For another they sound to most people as if they include government, or perhaps just local government. That's a disastrous impression to give, because precisely what gives this sector its unique capabilities is that it is not government (gaining the vitality of the private sector and avoiding the inherent weaknesses of government as an agent of social change). For me, those "civil/civic" terms just reinforce the insane and regressive cliche about how we wouldn't need non-profits if government was doing what it should.

I wish I had heard a better idea for a collective label, but if there is one it's not crossed my radar. Any pointers would be welcome. Perhaps the answer will hit me while strolling amongst the long-leaf pines in the light ocean breezes....back in a few -- talk amongst yourselves.


Stephen Drone said...

Those of us in the know call universities "dot ee dee u's". It can be either a designation or an insult.

So you could be "dot orgs."

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