Why we say “Not-For-Profit”

I’m sure to some it probably just sounds like a case of semantics: calling an organization a nonprofit or a not-for-profit.  Potato, po-tah-to. “What’s in a name?” as Shakespeare once said.

But, in fact, the names we use have real and far-reaching implications. The language with which we talk about ourselves and our work is powerful and serves a purpose, whether we realize it or not.

I noticed this name business a lot after joining a startup serving the charitable sector. People imagine threadbare carpets, low salaries and computers on the fritz. But I’d worked in a nonprofit before: it was located in one of the most beautiful offices I’ve ever worked in, it had up-to-date technology, and salaries weren’t a concern.

Still, there was and is something about the word “nonprofit” that gives the opposite impression.

We’ve come to believe that when you refer to this sector as “non-profit,” you do it a disservice.

We believe that’s because the prefix “non” suggests an impossibility while the word “not” implies a choice.

Calling an organization a “nonprofit” sounds like it’s set up to fail. The term implies that, try as it might, an organization won’t be able to reach its fundraising goals, that it will struggle to keep the lights on, and that fulfilling its mission might be nothing more than a pipe dream. It’s “non-profit”: that is, it can’t make a profit despite its best efforts.

But we know from working closely with not-for-profit organizations that the point of this sector isn’t to make a profit—it’s to make change. We’ve also clearly seen that dignity doesn’t have to be sacrificed to get there. Organizations should feel empowered by the impact they have on the world. They’re making a difference in every aspect of human life. We believe they should own their mission, own their story, and own their choice.

Using the term “not-for-profit” flips the script. It puts power back into the hands of the organization. It underscores the idea that working towards this mission is a choice and one willingly made by the passionate people who make up this sector. It’s not that they don’t reach their fundraising targets—it’s that they often surpass them and feed that extra revenue back into their mission. It’s a choice to establish a powerful legacy.

We wanted our clients to know that we stand behind their choice to make change in the world. We’re on their side. From here on out, we’re proudly saying not-for-profit.

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