A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used in place of some other word or phrase that is deemed to be too harsh for “polite society.” Unfortunately, however, euphemisms are misleading because, in part, they lack the bluntness that truth brings. In lacking that bluntness, they allow things to be misconstrued, misunderstood and worse, ignored.
A recent newspaper op-ed identified two euphemisms that had me silently screaming. One was an official euphemism started by the United Way in this region. A.L.I.C.E. A nice female name that stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed Individuals.” Seriously? In other words, the working poor.
I ask you: which moniker is clearer? Which lets you know exactly what is being discussed? Why use two words when six can totally misdirect? For a region where, according to the op ed, the working poor make up 40% of the population, why in the world would you want to disguise the problem? Why would you want to obfuscate it, making it harder for anyone, particularly the caring and compassionate, legislators, business owners paying unlivable wages, nonprofits, etc who should be doing something about it? But truthfully, it is much nicer to say, “Do you know Sally? Did you know she is ALICE?” If there is anything that I learned as an academic who is the daughter of two journalists, using more rather than fewer words does not make things clearer.
The other euphemism in the article, and the one that pressed me (I could say gently nudged me, but that would be a euphemism), to write this is DAN. DAN, a nice male name, stands for Distressed Asset Nonprofits. The purpose of this op ed was to encourage folks to participate in the upcoming United Way campaign; the impetus for coining DAN was the story of an executive director praying that it wouldn’t rain the next day because the organization needed a successful barbecue to raise enough money to make payroll the next week. Apparently, this wasn’t a one-off event: figuring out how to meet payroll is a regular occurrence. This prompted the author of the op-ed to extol this and the other DANs (of which there are apparently many in that region) and encourage people to ante up during the UW drive. A wise and good thing to do, or encouraging folly?
As noted previously, the vast majority of nonprofits are small. And though many are stressed, they aren’t all distressed. There is a big difference. Should anyone encourage responsible donors to give to DAN or is that simply throwing good money after bad? Should we be raising the stature of chronically distressed organizations, or should we recognize such organizations for what they are and come up with another solution—like dissolution or merging?
While many nonprofits hit a rough patch from time to time, being in a chronic state of chaos that results from an inability to meet basic expenses like payroll, is a sign of something far greater than hitting a rough patch. Continually living on that cusp of dissolution without acknowledging that is what you are doing produces a traumatized organization, with real consequences and signals an organization in disarray. The stress this causes staff members has an impact on their work with clients; the paid and volunteer leaders that allow such a state of existence have clearly failed to do their jobs, and the donors who continue to support such an organization fail the clients, staff, leadership, and the community by continuing to support and give promise to a tenuous organization, rather than switching their dollars to a solid option.
We should not glorify this state of affairs by creating a euphemism that covers up the reality of the situation.
We must never forget that nonprofits exist to provide services to others, not to self-perpetuate. Our goal must always be to ensure that clients come first, whether they are ours, or end up being someone else’s.