From Nonprofit to Social Purpose: A Minor Awakening

Recently I collaborated with a consulting partner to develop language to describe the practice we are mounting.  Our focus is engaging with nonprofit organizations-- so “nonprofit” was featured in all potential versions of our headline. 

Then I recalled my mild distaste for the term.  In my more than two decades of involvement with such organizations, I have occasionally found myself objecting to the way “nonprofit” suggests the sector should be defined:  in the negative, rather than, affirmatively, based on what it is intended to accomplish – improving society.

What has bothered me vaguely is that we have been conditioned to understand that the primary purpose of professional enterprise is generating profit rather than providing a valuable good or service, allowing for meaningful jobs and servicing communities – and that this attitude prevails to the extent that we label efforts explicitly motivated by humanitarian desires within a profit-minded context.

So in our promotional material, my partner and I replaced “nonprofit” with “social purpose,” a revision that felt satisfying.

While I think institutionalizing this shift would be useful, I introduce this topic not so much to advocate for this measure.   Rather, in a moment of intense political discord and minimal substantive discussion about ideas, policies and visions, I want to highlight our predilection for uncritically accepting, as I did with the term “nonprofit,” conventional language and, more importantly, entrenched social and economic conditions.

As examples, I cite a few issues that I wish would be exhaustively debated, but about which we hear little in the Presidential campaign and through mainstream communications channels:

The annual budget for the US military is $600 billion and this amount equals that of the combined military budgets of the seven countries with the next most sizable military operations -– and this while calls for free public college, universal health care and investments in a green economy are dismissed as unrealistic and met with the refrain:  but where will the money come from?

An estimated 2.2 million or nearly 1% of adult Americans are incarcerated and another approximately 4.7 million American adults are on probation or parole, bringing the ratio of adults involved in criminal justice system to 1:35.  The incarceration rate in the US is the highest of all countries globally; in fact, 4.4% of the world’s population resides in the US while 22% of the world’s prison population is housed here.  And the rate has quadrupled since the 1980s though incidence of violent and property-related crime increased only modestly during this period.   Of those now incarcerated, a considerable portion are Black males having committed drug-related and other low- level offenses -- and the per capita cost of imprisonment is about $80,000 annually, contrasted with the approximately $20,000 it costs to provide formal education for a year.

At the same time, the mega-bank Wells Fargo has admitted to committing systematic fraud upon its customers, and it seems the worst possible outcome for its CEO will be forfeiting a $40 million bonus and being compelled into early retirement, to be accompanied by a $120 million payout.

And in a country in which this sort of massive affluence exists, about 45 million people live in poverty and there is steep opposition to efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

I expect you will infer that I have opinions about these matters -- but the primary purpose of this post is not to express them, but instead to encourage greater awareness about the difficult and complex situations that we ignore or accept without sufficient examination.

Until a couple days ago, I probably uttered “nonprofit” thousands of times while barely considering the profit-centric attitude that the term reinforces.  Far more significantly, I recognize that it is only in recent years that I have begun to develop a measure of sophisticated consciousness about environmental matters and that as a younger person my understanding about racism, economic disparity and homophobia was less developed than it is today.  And I expect that I remain oblivious to many important matters – and that I am not alone in this condition.

To pry ourselves from ignorance and complacency, we should hold political leaders, media executives and others with influence responsible when they retreat to superficial talking points to protect financial interests and powerful positions.  And we ourselves should contend with the discomfort that might arise by venturing outside our material and metaphysical comforts to examine what may be ailing in our midst, to consider whether our society measures to our aspirations, and whether we are called to adjust our stations within it.

Converting the term “nonprofit” to “social purpose” is a minuscule initiative.  But maybe the mind-set behind it can serve us.