I didn’t even know what to say or how to respond.  I was at a networking event and was meeting and greeting with many attendees.  When I came up to this particular stranger, she said her name and the name of her employer.  I had never heard of that organization.  So I asked, “Is that a nonprofit or a for-profit?”

I was shocked by the content of her answer and the tone in which she delivered her response. She seemed to want to assure me, “Oh, we are VERY nonprofit.”

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Huh?!?  What does that mean? Are you trying to tell me that you are in the red?

My confusion inspired me to think more critically about how we talk about our sector.  I was reminded that it matters how we talk about our work.

Please remember that nonprofit does not mean we can’t make a profit, or we shouldn’t make a nonprofit.  Nonprofit means that we don’t distribute our profits to owners.  We, instead, invest funds into advancing our mission.

While I am clarifying, let me also emphasize this next point.  In the nonprofit community, our success is not simply measured by how we match revenues and expenses.  Our identity is not constricted to the financial reality.

Our essence is evident in our missions.

So let’s be more careful about the terms we use to discuss our work.  “Nonprofit” only captures one characteristic of our organizations: that we don’t distribute our profits.  Consider these other terms: philanthropy, civil society, and third sector.  Just like “nonprofit,” each conveys a particular meaning and suggest a different connotation.

Please leave a comment with your perspective. What term do you prefer to use when speaking about your work in our sector?

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