What’s In a Name?

By Deborah Davidson, vice president of governance education and research

Shakespeare asked that timeless question, or rather, he had Juliet ask it. Romeo, she tells us, would have been just as wonderful, and handsome, and desirable, if he had another name, like John, or Steve, or Poindexter.  Well, maybe not Poindexter.

Amazing that, 400 years after the Bard penned those words, it still comes up. The age-old question of “what’s in a name” has resurfaced in this blog entry by Phil Buchanan. What to call this sector we live and work in? Many folks, disliking the negative connotations of “non,” have proposed “independent sector”’; “voluntary sector”; “third sector”; and at a recent BoardSource Leadership Forum, an impassioned case was made for “social sector.” Buchanan likes “nonprofit” as a stark antithesis to “profit.”

In this series of blog posts, which I recommend for your edification, Buchanan, the CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, highlights some important issues in the sector (by whatever name); in particular, the heated rhetoric over whether or not the sectors are blurring. (We’re talking about that, too, and look forward to an interesting discussion at this year’s BLF, when Heerad Sabeti, Tim Delaney, and Richard Zeckhauser hold a Town Meeting on the “State of the Sector.”)

So, what is in a name? Does it matter? From a purely practical standpoint, it’s extremely hard to change a word once it’s in the lexicon, but I won’t hide behind that. If we really want to change our name, as a sector, we can do that. But should we? Buchanan’s conclusion was that “’nonprofitness’ matters,” to remind us of our unique focus and duty to reinvest our “profits” back into our organizations.  I’m casting my vote with him. I work for a nonprofit; I believe in the nonprofit sector; I try, every day, to make nonprofit governance a little bit better.  It’s not sexy, it’s not catchy; it’s just a name that fits.

A sector by any other name might smell as sweet, but that name might not remind us, every day, of what we are working for, and what we are not: Not shareholders, not the bottom line, not profit. We’re the nonprofit sector, and that, friends, is a positive thing.

What do you think? Does the name matter?



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  1. I have always used nonprofit but sometimes I think “not-for-profit” can be more descriptive. Often I run into people who assume that nonprofits cannot have surplus budgets. What we really need to convey is that any surplus is re-invested in serving the mission of the orgnaization. I don’t think the new lexicon gets at that at all…

    • Deborah Davidson

       /  June 6, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. I thought a lot about the nonprofit/not-for-profit distinction as I was writing the post, and concluded that it’s a distinction without a difference, or at least, not enough to try to promote more common usage of the latter. I liked Mr. Buchanan’s dichotomy of profit versus nonprofit because it was simple and clear. Another issue, which I didn’t raise in the post, was that with the entrance of other social-benefit entities into the mix, our sector needs clarity on what it is, and what it is not. The L3C, for example, is by charter a “not-for-MUCH-profit,” and keeping “nonprofit” as our sector name may help keep the distinction among the entities clear. True, some say that all social-benefit organizations–for-profits like B corporations and L3Cs, plus others we haven’t thought of yet, along with nonprofits–may at some point comprise their own sector, and at that point, we may have to come up with something completely new. But for now, I’m sticking with “nonprofit.” P.S. As an old editor, my feelings are least partially driven by an affinity for the simpler choice and an aversion to hyphen abuse, which is, sadly, rampant.


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