Non-profit organisation Moms Who Care feedingresidents in the Cape Flats community of Hanover Park. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER
Non-profit organisation Moms Who Care feedingresidents in the Cape Flats community of Hanover Park. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER

Shakespeare once wrote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  This is true for many things in life — freshly baked bread, popcorn at the movies, and the interior of a brand-new car. However, the inverse could also be true — change the name and people’s perception of the thing itself can also change. Once you remove the negative connotations associated with a label, perhaps one can be granted the chance to reinvent these connotations and associations.

During the 20th century we have transitioned from the term “charity” to “nonprofit”. Perhaps it is now time to evolve and claim an even more fitting title for the sector. This contemplation already sprouted in 2009 when Suzanne Perry expressed her discontent with the term nonprofit and argued “Why should groups describe themselves by what they are not?” Nonprofit  professionals don’t focus their energy on not enriching shareholders, as the word implies — they focus their energy on addressing and solving the social justice issues that face our society; the exact social justice issues that neither for-profit organisations nor the government can solve.

Nonprofit executive Dan Pallotta delved a little deeper, writing in the Harvard Business Review that “the word ‘profit’ comes from the Latin noun profectus for ‘progress’ and the verb proficere for ‘to advance’”. The term nonprofit therefore means, etymologically, nonprogress. In the same article Pallotta cited Allen Grossman of the Harvard Business School, who noted that the nonprofit sector is the only one with a name starting with a negative and “it apologises for itself before it begins. It communicates only what it is against, and is silent about what it is for”.

Of course, this is not a case of mistaken meaning. What it is, is potentially a dangerous unconscious statement of intent, or lack of it, that perpetuates negative attitudes toward nonprofit organisations (NPOs).

Considering the possibility of relabelling an entire sector of society, doesn’t a spade remain a spade, even if you call it a shovel? Will rebranding the sector really cause it to have more impact? Does it even matter what the community of NPOs, philanthropists and other actors in the third sector are called?

Their recognition as a key partner alongside the public and private sectors must be acknowledged and supported
Armand Bam, head of social impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School 

Psychology and sociology research tell us it does. Something as simple as preparing a resume proves that how you sell yourself matters. How you perceive yourself signals, not only to others but to yourself, what you are capable of. Another example is that of politics. Names have a big influence on how the public perceives an idea, and in SA everyone can attest to this. The same thus goes for how the third sector labels itself.

Will rebranding the sector really cause it to make more of an impact? I think it will. But not in the way one might think. The third sector is already making an immense impact on society.

My colleague, Armand Bam, head of social impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, recently noted that “NPOs are important for upholding and ensuring democracy and social justice. Their recognition as a key partner alongside the public and private sectors must be acknowledged and supported. We need to ensure that the social contract that exists is maintained. Failure to safeguard this will inevitably destabilise our democracy.”

It is the lack of recognition and support from the public and private sector that holds NPOs back. It has caused a reiterative snowball effect: with the lack of support in the first instance, both funding and otherwise, the sector fails to grow and professionalise, which in turn continues to prove public and private sectors right: NPOs cannot be regarded as efficient role players (in the subjective opinion of public and private entities).

Should we succeed in rebranding the sector to reflect the dramatic social progress it’s making and remove the negative connotations implied by public and private institutions, the possibility remains that NPOs, or perhaps social impact organisations from the social impact sector, can transform their own label and become a valid role player in transformational partnerships with public and private organisations. Perhaps then these institutions will be more inclined to provide substantial support to a sector that deserves it.

We can all help make that change happen. It is up to social impact professionals, organisations and the media to select the appropriate moniker that best represents the millions of workers, billions of rand in funding, and immeasurable impact the sector makes in our society. Regardless of the decision about a proper name, it’s only through its adoption and reiteration that we can move into a new era of social sector acceleration.

• Berning is a lecturer in the department of business management at Stellenbosch University and PhD candidate focusing on management systems and strategy for NPOs.

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