Watch your language – Alliance editorial board responds to Bill Drayton

Peter Hero

Bill Drayton’s opinion piece in the June edition of Alliance (‘Words matter’, p10) clearly touched a chord with members of the Alliance editorial board. Asked to respond, many did so promptly. What was the gist of their responses? Many agreed that the terms NGO and non-profit organization are unsatisfactory but felt that the term citizen organization is no less so. For many, what Bill Drayton’s piece did highlight was the need to think carefully about the language used to describe our sector and its work.

Rory Tolentino defends the use of the terms NGO and non-profit organization simply on the grounds that they are better understood in many places than citizen organization. ‘In the Philippines,’ she says, ‘we use people’s organizations as the term for grassroots organizations and NGOs for the organizations that have been organized by professional change agents.’ On balance, however, she favours the term ‘civil society organization’ as a broader, more widely acceptable term. ‘Even in the Philippines,’ she says, ‘this is often used interchangeably with NGO.’

Another defender of the ‘non’ terms is Barry Knight, on the grounds that they express a contrast with the dominant force in the society concerned and are thus correctly applied to those groups who are ‘a countervailing force’. For him, however, the language issue is a deeper one. ‘People use terms like human rights or social justice or civil society … as if they had particular references in the real world. I think our profession needs to do some serious work on definitions, and I agree with Bill Drayton that Alliance should take a proactive approach to terminology.’

From what he calls his ‘Tower of Babel’ experience at the recent EFC conference in Madrid, where ‘many were the words being used, sometimes with opposite meanings’, Fernando Rossetti agrees with Barry Knight that ‘the role of a publication like Alliance should be to point out all these different wordings and nomenclature’. He adds: ‘If Alliance chooses to adopt one concept (“social investment”, for example), it should explicitly define what it means – as it usually does.’

Like most of the board, Akwasi Aidoo feels that Bill Drayton has a point, but adds: ‘The term [NGO] is pretty well understood around the world. So, if we’re to replace it, we should look for a word that has the same quality of global understanding. I doubt that “citizen” has that quality.’ His point is endorsed by Andrés Thompson and Christopher Harris, who points out that the use of the term citizen would exclude ‘illegal aliens and some refugees – who are not “citizens” in their current residence, yet active in civil society.’

Volker Then turns the spotlight back on donors. The term citizen organization would, he suggests, be a misnomer ‘for a whole group of organizations driven by individual donors in philanthropy, who of course use their civic liberties as citizens but create endowed organizations which have governance structures quite different from what is being referred to as a citizen’s organization and are not usually governed by democratic mechanisms.’

‘If non-governmental and non-profit sound too “non”,’ suggests Peter Laugharn, ‘then “civil society organization/CSO” seems straightforward, comprehensible, and not “non”.’

‘If only a fraction of NGOs were truly citizen organizations then I’d be the first to agree with Bill,’ says Andrew Kingman. ‘Unfortunately, in most countries of the world NGOs range from glorified consultant firms through large generalist project managers, to small groups of dedicated professionals working on issues that few people dare touch, to the array of BRINGOs etc, etc.’ Like Peter Laugharn, he favours CSO ‘if we must have a catch-all at a global level’.

The real point for him, though, is that funders should be more careful in describing the kinds of organizations they work with: ‘The characteristics of professional service-providing CSOs able to manage huge government contracts are very different from those of a grassroots institution capable of mobilizing thousands for a land rights march.’

Venkat Krishnan also comes out in favour of clearer distinctions and the avoidance of imprecise blanket terms. ‘NGOs include some organizations that are not truly “citizen” organizations,’ he points out, while “non-profit” specifically excludes certain citizen organizations like microfinance companies or Bottom of the Pyramid for-profit initiatives.’

What about Peter Hero’s suggestion (see below) that the term non-profit conjures up for many outside the sector a ‘fuzzy, volunteer-driven, unmanaged circus of good intentions’ and his suggestion of ‘public benefit corporation’ and ‘public benefit sector’ to counteract this?

Janet Mawiyoo for one is unhappy with the use of the term corporation, which ‘immediately implies a public/private profit-making company or a government company’. Moreover, the term would be problematic even within the US, says Karla Simon. ‘In California, one can choose between legal forms, public benefit corporations and mutual benefit corporations, for purposes of registration. That simply is not true in most states in the US and therefore has little applicability even in the narrow context of the US.’

Her vote, like Peter Laugharn’s and Andrew Kingman’s, goes to CSO, both because it has no legal significance, so the confusion caused when a specific term is used in a general way is avoided, and because it avoids the misleading use of the term citizen. This is also Janet Mawiyoo’s view. CSO is neutral, whereas in Kenya at least the term public has connotations with state ownership and operation and is likely to be misunderstood.

There is also a feeling that it would be difficult to find one term that would not only cover all the organizations it is supposed to cover and no more, but would be globally applicable. As Marcos Kisil points out, ‘words acquire meanings based on the cultural understanding of people that live in one country, region or locality.’

Also, argues Janet Mawiyoo, ‘people often become what they call themselves, sooner or later’, which has had some damaging consequences. ‘Many NGOs have lost opportunities to improve the sustainability of their work because they think it’s wrong for them to make money since they are a non-profit!’

So, if neither citizen nor public benefit make the grade, the reigning champion, NGO, gets only two cheers, with CSO just edging the vote. Perhaps the best summing up and most fitting last word is Atallah Kuttab’s, who in future promises, ‘I will start to watch my language!’
It is time to change our name

Why is there such a chasm of misunderstanding between the for-profit and non-profit sectors? Why, in America at least, are our (mostly) well-managed, vigorous, and vitally important non-profit organizations thought by many in the private sector to be well-meaning but marginal and haphazardly managed organizations?

I believe one of the main reasons is the name ‘non-profit sector’. What other sector defines itself solely by what it is not?

The term is unfortunate on several counts:
· It can lead potential donors, especially in the corporate sector, to dismiss it because they do not understand the sector’s mission and roles.
· It conveys to many a sort of fuzzy, volunteer-driven, unmanaged circus of good intentions.
· Finally, it does nothing to explain the social value of the sector.

So, I think the time has come to change the name. Non-profit organizations are in many ways much like for-profit organizations. The most significant distinction between the two, besides the obvious fact that one distributes profits to shareholders and the other is mission-driven, is that one has access to capital and the other does not.

I would like to suggest we call non-profits what they are: public benefit corporations.

The term public benefit conveys at least four important qualities:
1 It affirms the value of the sector by making explicit who benefits from its work: the public.
2 It affirms the sector’s transparency and accountability to the public.
3 It reflects the sector’s organizational dynamic of civic engagement and consensus decision-making.
4 It will help create greater understanding between the private and non-profit sectors, which at the moment are drifting further apart.

If the term resonates in the field, public benefit corporations could start to describe themselves as such, and both local foundation and public benefit corporation leaders could adopt and promote the term locally.

Meanwhile, the boards of directors of the Independent Sector, Council on Foundations, and other national philanthropic associations might consider the term as well. I suggest that the US’s 700 community foundations do the same. LEAVE OUT IF SHORT OF SPACE

We are seeing a new and dynamic philanthropy in America, with a new emphasis on measurement, accountability and effective management. Most public benefit corporations are very well managed, and if we can alert people to the fact, we can accelerate the development of philanthropy.

So let’s call non-profit organizations what they are, instead of what they are not.

Peter Hero
Senior Advisor, Silicon Valley Community Foundation


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