Sceptical about terminology

David Brocklebank

Recent issues of Alliance have hosted quite a debate about the terminology we use to describe the sector we work in. As an organization that deals with requests for data on this sector every day, we perhaps have a slightly different take on what seems to be a heated topic.

As your correspondents point out, choice of a particular term (non-profit, non-governmental, civil society or citizen sector) often implies a particular judgement about who or what comprises the third sector, or the voluntary community, or social enterprises. At the moment GuideStar UK holds information only on registered charities but we will soon be adding information on Community Interest Companies (CICs), Industrial and Provident Societies and housing associations, among others – altogether amounting to what we estimate will be 95 per cent of the sector (by income).

This move to hold additional information wasn’t driven by some philosophical whim, but by hard demand from clients who want to be able to see this data in one space. These clients are local and national government, lawyers, insurance brokers, banks, sector analysts. What’s curious about our 95 per cent is that it would probably comprise well over 100 per cent of the sector as defined by some, and be seen as vastly unrepresentative by others.

This demand needs to be understood by those who would include or exclude, who get angry at misrepresentation of who or what they are as an organization. Because for the users of this information this is about data, not philosophy. What is important is what the user thinks is important, not the data provider (much as we might like to think the opposite). I’m sure this last point is the root cause of much of the debate because there is potentially a lot of money at stake, particularly from government. But perhaps we should rise above it and not play that particular game.

Methods of categorization become outmoded and boundaries blurred – something that starts out as a movement to point out what is good about a particular type of organization becomes ding-dong trench warfare. We need to be careful that we don’t focus overly on one battle and end up losing another one completely. This is not to say that these debates are unimportant, just that they might not be as important as we think.

David Brocklebank
Chief Executive, GuideStar Data Services


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