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)


The website "https://www.alliancemagazine.org/opinion/words-matter/" is a true source of inspiration and knowledge. Its articles are not only informative but also well-written, offering fresh insights into the world of philanthropy and foundations. The diversity of authors and perspectives on this site makes it an indispensable resource for anyone interested in social change and philanthropic work. The emphasis on the importance of words and communication in philanthropy is particularly impressive and reminds us of how crucial it is to convey the right messages to effect positive change in our world. Thank you for providing such valuable resources!

Sandeep Manikpuri

I agree and if I say I had gave my words somewhere already agreeing this that means it is given by a citizen who could be one among many or the most citizens having the same way of thought, realization and intensions as you gave in this article. In my life I have witnessed many occasions or events that somehow provide a fact of bitter confession stating that providers often strugle to get thier own needs required to keep them providing the things that are essential for many to get without any struggle. Here my words may have errors causing you unable to understand the way you may have used to in your familiar atmosphere of communication but I believe it is better to speak wrong than better sneaking nothing. So I do not apologise for it but I do appreciate your humbleness if you ignore them and get the least of my message. People makes people. Both are singular in writing the words as per rule. If I say it is "lacs of people" makes "a citizen association" and suppose you get is as in diffferent number of describing than I am also right and you too. No law or no authority can prove us wrong if they deny ours and enforce whatever they feel as need. People always fight for thier rights with taking full responsibility and offen strugle to get validation or approval on thier responsibility's being right. I will read your articles for free that is my right or constitutional and universal right of knowing! But I may seek an investigation on your proposal of promoting some profitable ventures run by you ! First was my right and second is definitely my responsibility! ???? Do you get where the gape is ? Anyways I find it difficult to stop my pen after starting writing causing most of words unseen or deleted so I limit them here only. I don't know who will read it today but I do know one day someone will it for sure.


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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