Writing about the moral distress of non-profit against for-profit companies, I realized another topic the TED talk touched and that I didn’t quite realize until writing that post: the terminology. In his talk Dan Pallotta talks about the history of non-profit and shows where it came from. Which also explains this rather weird term and its definition: wealthy business people were running philanthropic endeavors on the side to make their churches happy and feel morally okay earning big money. Unlike their actual business those rather small side-thingies were not for profit - hence the term.

Totally understandable term, but what we mean by that changed since then. We fund companies and projects on the ground of never having to yield any profit now, we have plenty of organizations without any link to profit oriented business what so ever, either being paid through government, foundations or donations from the public or certain groups of people. This is why this “not for profit” always felt odd to me but I never questioned it. But now I do and I think it is time, we stop using it. Let’s replace it with the terminology “for-good” entirely – or at least for many cases. And this is why:

We have evolved as society since the days of strong industrial capitalism. There are more colors than black and white and there are more businesses concept than profit or not. So many more shades and colors, but by using non-profit we fall back to a binary model of explaining the world. And use it as the starting value proposition. Is this really what we want to focus on in the non-profit field? Didn’t you actually start the endeavor for a different reason, especially if profit isn’t what you care about? I think you most likely have a more important first things to say.

Negative taste

By using the negative term of something, you define yourself through what another and only add “that’s what we are not”. Which ultimately also means everything praised by the other as good, you shouldn’t be doing as you are the opposite. Which doesn’t only apply to the tools but also the image, so when for-profit claims to be efficient and effective, by defining one-self by “not” it also implies, you aren’t, can’t or might don’t even want to be. Ouch. But all this is transported in a “we are not”-terminology, by saying you are a “non-profit”. Even if you are running things efficient, effective and good, the first thing you say implies the opposite.

More shades of gray

As mentioned before, there is more than the binary black and white these terms suggest. We already have successfully implemented things like social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social franchise now. The whole profit vs non-profit doesn’t matter to them. Some also yield a profit, which doesn’t make them any less social. Others might not yield any profits ever, but are otherwise structure like a modern day company. And just throwing collectives in the ring? And employee owned companies? And Kindergarden yielding profit out of which it runs a charity? Whether something is for-profit or not is merely a structural (and partly legal and taxation) question today. But it has nothing to do with real business and most definitely not a distinctive attribute.

Never use negative terms

The way our brain works doesn’t allow us to think about negative things. You can’t “not think of a polar bear” – try it. If we hear non-X, the first thing we think of is the X, then we try to imagine the none, which we fail at terribly. Not only because of that one should always use positive language, it is a common communication tool to render clear, understandable language. For the same reason it is much easier to understand what something is than what something is not, it makes it also much easier to image where things are going. For that simple reason you should always be “for” something rather than “against” something else.

All of the former arguments are why I’m proposing the usage of the term for-good, when appropriate and discard the usage of the term non-profit – unless used to describe the legal company structure specifically.

Note: A great example of this is actually Attac: the Anti-globalization movement was against international capitalism from its founding but when that failed human kind terribly in 2008/2009 and everyone turned to them to think about what to do instead, they didn’t have any proposal and lost all its credibility. Their number one chance to take down the negative effects of globalisation and they blew it because by being so against it, they weren’t for anything.

Thanks to Nana B Agyei for publishing that great photo under Creative Commons.