The Name Game

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 18th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary


Decades ago, I had a friend who was getting divorced.   She had taken his name when she’d gotten married, despite her feminist principles.  When she was queried as to why she’d done that, she said, quite simply, “My maiden name was worse.”

As the divorce was getting closer to being finalized, she decided that in addition to no longer wishing to have her husband, she didn’t want his name either.  Clear that she didn’t want to reach back to her maiden name, she decided she’d pick a brand new name.  If you think naming a child is hard, I can attest to the extreme difficulties of choosing a brand new last name.  Hours and hours were spent on this problem and, in the end, she stuck with the name she assumed when she got married.

In many respects, my friend didn’t have anything more pressing to do at that time, nothing urgent on her plate:  she was healthy, employed, had a lovely home, friends, etc.  While she was absolutely serious in her desire to have a brand new last name, there was also a therapeutic, cathartic element—for her—in going through the process of trying to find that new last name.

The nonprofit sector, however, does not have that luxury of not having anything more urgent to do than worry about its name.  And, yet, when I heard two people from two different organizations say in the space of one week that their organization’s priority was to proselytize for a new name (and the same name, at that) for the sector, I got concerned.

I’ll be the first to admit that our name—nonprofit sector—is not at all a good name.  For one, it perpetuates some of the most foolhardy myths ever concocted.  For example, apparently when people hear “nonprofit” they assume that means that the organization cannot, by law, make money.

If anyone stopped to think about the logic embodied in that thinking, they would see the absurdity of it all.  How does any organization survive, let along flourish, if it doesn’t bring in more than it spends running its business?  Following this logic, every for-profit business must, by law, make a profit.  But for too many people, the name cements the concept that all nonprofits have negative balance sheets.

Another foolhardy myth is the one that says nonprofit employees do not need or want compensation that leads to financial well-being.  Apparently, because nonprofits cannot make money, they have no money with which to pay employees and people who want to work at nonprofits know this and are satisfied not to be paid, either at all or at a competitive level.

I get it:  the name is not a good one.  But what is a better alternative?  Because if we are going to change the name of the sector, it better be for a better name.  Non-government organization, or NGO, is the name commonly accepted in the world beyond the United States.  So, perhaps we should adopt that language so that at least we are in sync with everyone else.  But that continues the course of defining us by what we are not, instead of what we are. So, we aren’t a government agency; but what are we?  We should be cautious about naming us by what we are not, as that has lead to some pretty bad misunderstandings that we are still trying to overcome.

The name that came up twice in one week, as I mentioned above, is community benefit sector.  I’ve heard it many a time before this past week, and I shudder each and every time I hear that name.  Simply put, it is so pompous and exclusionary.  I find it ironic and sad that so many nonprofits that work so hard to overcome and break down exclusion could for even one second embrace this name.  The second time this past week that it was said, it was said in front of a mixed audience—nonprofit and for-profit representatives were in the room—and I simultaneously wanted to shrink into the background and hold up a sign that said “Don’t blame me; I don’t buy the message!”  How arrogant are we that we think that only those entities that we currently refer to as nonprofits are the only ones who provide benefits to communities?

While I’m not particularly fond of any bank right now, the reality is that banks do help communities in multiple ways, and they do fund nonprofits.  Do only those hospitals that are nonprofit and those doctors, nurses and other health care providers who work in nonprofit settings provide for community benefit while those who work in for-profit organizations do not?  Architectural firms that are designing green space and solar energy companies that work with them, are they not benefitting communities?  Do restaurants and retail shops not benefit communities?  The nonprofit sector does not have a corner on helping communities, and it is arrogant and divisive to say or think we do.  We need to narrow the divide and work together.

If you were hoping to find a good, new name here, I am sorry to disappoint.  The truth is, like my friend many decades ago, I’ve gotten used to this name and it is better than the alternatives (only two of which I mentioned here).  All of the alternatives that regularly get bandied about has its problems.  So, in the end, you stick with what you’ve got:  it isn’t perfect, but we know its foibles and how to counter them.  And quite frankly, the name is not even among the biggest problem facing the sector.  And we need to put our attentions to those things that matter.

But, hey, if you’ve got a good name to suggest, let’s hear from you.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.