Words matter

Bill Drayton

Alliance and all of us in its community could make an important difference by determinedly moving to use the phrases ‘citizen sector’, ‘citizen organization’ and ‘citizen movement’ – and by rigorously editing out the use of ‘non-profit’ and ‘NGO’ and their variants – in all our communications.

One cannot constructively or effectively define anything by what it is not. Moreover, by calling us ‘non-government’, one suggests a conflict with government that is not and certainly should not be there. Similarly ‘non-profit’ suggests, at best, foreignness to the business reader.

Why are we actively advocating the substitution of ‘citizen sector/organization/movement’? There are two reasons:

· When one or several people get together to provide a service or cause a change, they instantly are citizens in the fullest sense of the word. The active ingredient in the sector is these citizens.

· As important as the announced purpose of each such intervention is, we believe that there is a second impact that is actually, especially for social entrepreneurs and at this historic turning point, more important. They are role models for and mass recruiters of many, many changemakers. To succeed, every social entrepreneur must disrupt the old ways (Schumpeterian creative destruction) and encourage local people to stand up and seize the entrepreneur’s idea and run with it in community after community after community. This role modelling and this ploughing and seeding are essential to the transition the world is entering and must quickly go through – from the world of small elites to one where, as much as possible, everyone is a changemaker.

The New York Times is increasingly using the ‘citizen’ formulation. Surely the Alliance community should be leading, not lagging, the New York Times!

Words are important.

Bill Drayton is CEO and Chair, Ashoka. Email wdrayton@ashoka.org

Editor’s note
At present Alliance policy is to accept authors’ choices of terms rather than imposing our own. I would very much welcome readers’ views as to whether we should take a more proactive stance, as suggested by Bill Drayton. Please send your comments to caroline@alliancemagazine.org

Comments (1)


Hi bill, I agree 100%, citizen is the new more accurate term and just much better all around for the reasons you listed above and too many more for me to get into here! What would say much has changed since you wrote this back in 2007? Take care and stay safe, Jane

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