Botox on a unicorn: Should the nonprofit sector change its name?

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hongkongfood_downstairs_10Hi everyone, I am heading back to the US this week. It has been a fun vacation, though kind of exhausting with a two-year-old who refuses to eat anything or sleep more than three consecutive hours. This, and being an ED for nearly ten years, has taken a toll on me. I keep getting comments like, “Your son is so cute! Hm…you must have started your family late, huh? How old are you, 44, 45?” After the fifth time, asked by a tofu dessert vendor, I just said, “No, I did not start a family late! I just look way older than I am! Time has not been kind to me! Thanks for reminding me, lady!” Then I softly wept into my bowl of hot silken tofu with ginger caramel sauce, thinking that maybe I should get some cosmetic surgery here, since it’s way cheaper than in the US.

But anyway, today’s topic. In the past few months, I’ve been hearing more and more people suggest that the nonprofit sector should change its name. “Defining ourselves by something we’re not is pretty ridiculous,” said some very smart people during a happy hour. “Yeah!” I agreed, getting up in arms, “that’s like calling a woman a ‘non-man’! Or hummus a ‘non-guacamole’! Ridiculous! Let’s grab our torches and pitchforks!”

Suggestions for new names instead of “nonprofit” are numerous—with the basic building blocks being words like “social,” “community,” “impact,” “benefit,” “public,” “purpose,” “mission,” and “cashflow-related night-terrors”—but none of them perfectly fits and encompasses what we do. I asked the NWB Facebook community for their thoughts on various potential monikers:

The Impact Sector: Kind of violent, like car crashes. “Makes me think of crushing garbage into compact cubes.”

The Social Sector: Kind of wishy-washy. “That sounds like all we do is go to parties.”

The Social Impact Sector: Kind of violent, yet wishy-washy. “Sounds like all we do is go to parties that involve crushing garbage into compact cubes.”

The For-Purpose Sector: “Makes me roll my eyes” says a colleague, and I have to agree with her. It reminds me of “all-purpose flour.” This term sounds half-baked.

Social Profit Sector: Sounds awkward, and shouldn’t we get away from this business concept of “profit” altogether?

The Mandate-Driven Sector or Mission-Driven Sector: I can’t imagine some kid saying, “When I grow up, I’m going to work for a mandate-driven organization.” (“Billy, stop making up imaginary nonsense and do your chores!”)

Public Benefit Sector, or Community Benefit Sector: These are not altogether horrible, and “I work for a CBO” doesn’t sound bad.

Some recommend we just stick to “not-for-profit.” Or NGO, since that’s the global term used in many countries. Some suggest we adopt names that actually reflect what we do, hence the Get-Sh!#-Done-With-Duct-Tape-and-Sheer-Will Sector or the We-Run-Clinics-and-Save-Lives-with-what-You-Spend-on-Bottled-Water Sector.

Another colleague recommended Justice League, which I think is cool, because then we’re each like superheroes. My superhero identity will be “Meeting Man”: Have

Businessman Wearing Cape --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Businessman Wearing Cape — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

no fear! When evil strikes, citizens can rely on Meeting Man and his abilities to set agendas and facilitate a solution-focused discussion that ends on time! (I’m going to pitch this to Marvel Comics. Other characters include Meeting Man’s sidekick Superaccurate Notetaker, and arch-nemesis The Pontificator).

If we had to change our name, I and some people recommend “The Unicorn Sector” because we are magical and make the world better. Or maybe the “Awesomeness Sector.” Think about the word “business.” It really just means “busy-ness,” how one occupies one’s time, but through hundreds of years of usage, it’s developed its own meaning. Well, if we stick with it for hundreds of years, awesomeness will develop its own meaning: “When I grow up, I want to work in the awesomeness sector.” “Aw, that’s great, Billy, just like your mom. Now do your chores and I’ll let you teleport to Pluto for thirty minutes.”

What, like your suggestions are so much better.

I’m not a marketing or branding expert, as you can tell by the way I dress, so I welcome counter-points and discussion on this post. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the argument for changing our sector’s name is a red herring, another of the shiny and distracting “innovations” that plague our field and take focus away from the much more complex, messier, less sexy actions that we need to take to strengthen our work.

It seems a lot of us believe that rebranding is the miracle cure that our orgs needs to succeed in the often-brutal nonprofit Hunger Games. We start thinking of changing our organizations’ names or logos, or redesign our websites, hoping it would help to keep our work going for another fiscal year. And some of us who think about the sector as a whole start believing that if the nonprofit sector itself rebrands—starting with a name change—then many of the entrenched weaknesses will just resolve themselves.

While I definitely agree that there is power in words and language, and that the term “nonprofit” is far from perfect, the name is not the biggest challenge our sector faces, and the more time and energy we spend on it, the less time we have to tackle fundamental issues preventing us from fully doing our work. Here are a few of these issues, which I’ve written plenty about so I won’t elaborate too much on:

Funding dynamics, and the adversarial relationship between funders and nonprofits. We’re supposed to be partners solving the same societal problems, but one wields vastly more power than the other, and there’s a huge wall between the two. This power imbalance has been perpetuating a really unstable, ineffective financing system where nonprofits are forced to spend a significant amount of our time justifying our work instead of doing it, subjected to severely awful things like the Overhead Myth and the Sustainability Myth.

The business sector’s superiority complex, and our parallel inferiority complex. Overall, there is often a lack of understanding from business people—even on occasion our donors and board members—on what nonprofits are and what we can do. For instance, as I wrote in “Dear business community, please remember these 10 things about nonprofits,” unlike businesses, as our programs become more successful, we increase in costs without a matching increase in revenues. And yet, we’ve also internalized this myth that businesses are more efficient and effective, leading us to adapt crappy systems and habits, such as inequitable hiring practices.

Equity, diversity, cultural competency, inclusion, etc. I’ve written about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE), where large mainstream organizations absorb the majority of the funding to serve marginalized communities, and those same communities are left with pennies and often out of the discussion. I’ve also written about how we’ve been so focused on increasing the demands for leaders of color while not paying attention to growing the supply of professionals of color in the sector.

These are just three issues we need to tackle. We haven’t even touched on the need to increase compensation for nonprofit staff, the need to address staff burnout and turnover, the growing complexity and quantity of the challenges our communities face, the fact that foundations are spending less than 1% on leadership, and some other way more important stuff. Honestly, if we can solve some of these problems—if all funds were multi-year general operating, if all nonprofit professionals were paid what they’re worth so they can stay in the sector, if we nonprofits can focus on achieving long-term outcomes instead of reporting on which funders paid for what part of our operations, if communities that are most affected by inequities are trusted and funded to lead in the problem-solving, if everyone can work together effectively to address societal challenges—then we could be called The Fluffy Bunnies Sector for all I care.

sleeping_unicorn_by_kasablankaI recommend we all just embrace the term “nonprofit” for the imperfect, sexy title that it is and start being more vocal about how awesome and necessary our work is. I don’t think the name is what’s been preventing people from entering into the sector, or for people to leave the sector, or for organizations to work effectively together, or for us to have an awesome TV show about our work. Yes, branding has definitely gotten more important, and we should be allocating more funds to this area, and there are lots of success stories of organizations that rebrand with great results. But from what I know, rebranding is a serious process, and you don’t do it when your ducks are not lined up, like your board is disorganized, or your org is going through leadership change. To think about changing our sector’s name without first addressing the fundamental challenges like funding dynamics and lack of diversity and burnout—that’s like giving botox to a really exhausted unicorn. Yeah, the unicorn may look better, but it’s still exhausted.

Let me know your thoughts.

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