Off my rocker and dreaming

The other day, someone asked me if I was worried I would become known as “That crazy lady who won’t stop talking about renaming the nonprofit sector“.

I told him no.

Here’s why: Because I am 100% comfortable being thought of as a little off my rocker if it means we find a way to talk about our work that gets away from a term that defines it by what it is not, instead of what it IS. Because it is awesome and important and ground-breaking and world-changing.

And it has nothing at all to do with sector. (Which, as Joanne Fritz pointed out in the comments on this post, sounds militaristic and silo’d.)

I dream of a day when the do-gooders of the world don’t feel obligated to have their sector define their impact. It doesn’t matter if you work for a 501c3, a venture fund, or a global software giant. The tax status of where you work is irrelevant. The impact of the work you do is absolutely relevant.

I dream of a day when we define ourselves not by sector, but by cause, purpose, vision, mission, and community.

Sectors are handy from a regulation perspective. But if we allow them to create artificial boundaries that define our work, we miss opportunities to create connections inspired by shared purpose vs shared tax status.

Will it be easy to change how we talk about our work? No. Change is hard. It takes time and tenacity. And some will say, “It ain’t really broken, so why fix it?”

My dream is not everyone’s dream. But that’s the nature of dreams–they are yours and you can choose to share them or not.

I am choosing to share this dream because I believe words matter. I believe they influence our impact. I believe words are one piece of the elusive puzzle that is a better world.

So I’m fine being the crazy lady who dreams about words, the demise of sector dominance, and the advent of a way to describe our work that speaks to what it is. I’m totally cool with that. Because our work is making the world a better place. And that matters.



Let’s name this thing

I’ve gotten loads of comments, questions, thought bubbles, etc. in response to my crusade to rename the non-profit sector the iSector.

Here’s what people said:

  • Yes, we want to do away with referring to ourselves in the negative, particularly after learning that ‘non-profit’ means ‘non-progress’. (Ugh.)
  • Yes, we agree with the key attributes, distinguishing characteristics and unique differentiators as captured in the Five Is. Some could do without intrepid, but overall, we’re good.
  • Yes, we’re ready to find something new.
  • No, I can’t see myself saying/writing iSector.

Even though I’m the iSector instigator, I concur with this last point. It feels a bit trendy, a tidge flashy, a little too Apple-esque.

So let’s name this thing together!

Below is a list of options that have been floated as alternatives to ‘non-profit’.

  • For Cause (shout out to @Susan_Chavez on this one)
  • For Mission
  • Charitable Sector
  • Community Benefit Sector (shout out to @HildyGottlieb on this one)
  • Voluntary Sector
  • Third Sector (brought to us by our friends in the U.K.)
  • Unsectored
  • Progress Sector (I’m personally kinda liking this one right now…)
  • Social Good Sector
  • Social Benefit Sector
  • Social Impact Sector

Which do you like and why? Other suggestions?



Dream: verb and noun

When you have a dream while sleeping, that happens in spite of you. You’re asleep, after all.

When you have a dream while awake, it happens because of you. Your dreams reflect who you are and what you stand for. It is both verb and noun. “I dream of a better world and I’m making that dream come true.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomized dreaming in action. His “I Have a Dream” speech is as resonant today as it was on August 28, 1963.

Below shows another dream in action. It’s the dream of Severn Suzuki as described in an address she gave to the United Nations. She is 13 years old.

What’s your dream? Are you working every day to make it come true?


Because We Can! A Tribute to Senator Scott White

Senator Scott White
Scott White: waving to voters the day after he was elected

On Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 2:14PM Pacific, I published a blog post on the iSector.

On Friday, October 21, 2011 at 6:11PM Pacific, I got a phone call from my dear friend, Alison Carl White.

On Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 8:24AM Pacific, I was running around the seawall in Vancouver, B.C. in gale force winds and torrential downpour.

This three moments are inextricably linked.

The iSector was the outgrowth of my long-held belief that the name of our sector–currently, the Nonprofit Sector–does a huge disservice to what we are trying to accomplish. I can’t say I love the name ‘iSector’, and I will continue to search for a better name, but at least it gets us away from referring to ourselves as the ‘Non-Progress Sector’.  Publishing that post was a big moment for me.

The phone call from Alison was another big moment, but in a very different–and tragic–way. She was calling because she had just learned that her husband, Senator Scott White, had died. Alison is 39. They have two young children. Scott embodied health, energy and leadership. To say this was a shock would be the understatement of 2011.

What struck me most about Scott was his belief that so much was possible. While most of us would scratch our heads, shuffle our feet (looking a lot like Eeyore), and wonder how we’d get out of this mess (insert whichever mess might cause you consternation, e.g. education, transportation, the environment), Scott was bounding along in pursuit of a better path forward (sort of like Tigger, with the brains of Owl).

I imagine Scott knew a roadblock when he saw one, but he never seemed to focus on its presence. He always seemed focused on how to find a dignified way around it that would make the world a better place. He was pragmatic, for darn sure. But he was also an optimist.

And this brings me back to that gusty run. As I came around the point, it blew so hard I actually fell over (not a pretty moment). I was so wet that my shoes were making a bizarre squishing noise every time my foot struck the ground. You’d think I would’ve been cursing this run.

Instead, I was grinning ear to ear.

Why? Because I could be running in that crazy weather. Because I had a choice. Because it was possible.

In moments like these, I now think about Scott. I think about what’s possible. I try to think bigger. As big as Scott thought about what’s possible.

I believe it is possible for us to  truly make the world a better place. Call me a Polyanna. Call me naive. I really don’t care.

I believe–regardless of tax status and official sector name–that if you get up every morning set on making the world a better place, that you can. And that you do.

On that run, I had a vision of a sea of people with t-shirts, badges, ball caps, tattoos, and buttons that all said: Because we can!

Because we can make the world a better place. If we couldn’t, why bother trying?

We should try. Every day. In ways big and small. We should try.

We should make the world a better place, because we can.




The iSector: Are you in?

Non-profit organization - word cloud illustrationDepending on where you live, you may call them non-profits, not-for-profits, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations educate kids, fight for justice, feed the hungry, house the homeless, eradicate poverty, protect our planet, fuel the arts, nurture our spirits, find cures for cancer and generally do everything in their power to make our world a better place. And yet, we define them by what they are not.

If you look at the Latin root of the word profit, it means either ‘progress’ or ‘advance’.  At what point did we decide it was okay to be defined as the ‘non-progress’ sector when the whole point of what we do is to make progress?!

And there’s more: the term ‘non-profit’ refers to donor profit, not organizational profit. It is about the individual impact on the person making the gift, i.e. the donor is foregoing personal profit by giving money to a charitable, tax-exempt organization.

At what point did we transfer a reference to impact on individual tax returns and bank accounts to the impact of the sector?

At what point did we confuse one individual foregoing personal benefit with millions of organizations creating community benefit? At what point did we decide it was okay to define ourselves by an erroneous and unrelated marker—profit—instead of by what we are?

What’s in a name?
If individual organizations were to name themselves by the opposite of their intent—e.g. Divided Way, Badwill Industries, Nature Destroyer—we’d think they were crazy.  Yet we refer to an entire sector by the opposite of its intent.

If the sector shouldn’t be named for what it’s not doing and/or for an erroneous reference to individuals deciding to ‘not profit’ from a donation, what should it be named?

As with all else, it should have a name that reflects what makes it truly unique, by what distinguishes it, by what piece of mental real estate it will occupy in people’s brains, by its most compelling attributes.

In this case, we should name it: the iSector.

The iSector’s Five ‘I’s

Why the iSector? The ‘i’ captures its essence and most compelling characteristics, all of which start with an ‘i’.

With its intrepid spirit, the iSector inspires innovation and investment that leads to impact.

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

INTREPID: Honestly, if you look at what the iSector takes on—poverty, sustainability, education, homelessness, health care, arts, athletics, Alzheimer’s, malaria, and polio just to  name a few—it boggles the mind. Only those with “resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance” would go there. It is the intrepid spirit of those drawn to the sector that sparks and sustains the work.

INSPIRES:  The volunteer who patiently teaches a six year old to read inspires.  The donor who believes cancer can be conquered inspires.  The board that enthusiastically launches an audacious capital campaign inspires. The organization that believes art is a right not a privilege inspires. The foundation that believes we can eradicate malaria inspires. And it goes without saying, but is worth saying anyway, that this work is inspired by individuals who deserve equal access to a better life, a better future, a better world.

To be clear, I’m not saying the iSector is all rainbows, flowers and unicorns. Solving intractable problems is tough and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we get it flat out wrong. However, this contributes to the sector’s inspirational nature—there are rarely easy answers, straight-forward solutions or obvious wins. And yet we are undeterred. That’s inspiring.

INNOVATION: This word gets tossed around a lot, so much so that it has almost lost its meaning. The technical definition is “the introduction of something new”. That doesn’t quite seem to do it justice, particularly when you look at it in the context of the iSector where innovation has as much to do with adaptation and experimentation, as creation.  Regardless, “Nobody innovates when they’re fat and sassy, “ as Kenneth Foster, Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put it. And although the iSector might have a little sass, there’s nothing fat about it. Resting on your laurels isn’t acceptable. And so, we innovate. Not on occasion but all the time. It is part of our rhythm. A daily occurrence, rather than a rare occasion. It may not always look or feel innovative in the moment, but when you add it up, it most definitely is. We innovate with purpose whether on purpose or not. That purpose is to create greater impact.

INVESTMENT: To fuel inspiration and innovation that leads to impact, we must invest in organizations and individuals. The organizations need the resources to not just do the work, but to do it well. The iSector—and those who benefit from the work—need the very best that we have to offer, not the bare minimum. Investments of money, time, capital, commitment, passion, energy, connections—this is what we need to do what we need to do.

IMPACT: When you take the intrepid spirit and couple it with the inspiration, innovation and investment, you get impact. Impact that is felt by individuals, organizations, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, countries, and continents. Across oceans and Internet connections. Much of it you can quantify. Some of it you can’t. However you measure it, the iSector’s impact is undeniable. Is it enough? No. Can we do more? Yes. (This is where you come in.)

The iSector has nothing to do with tax status. It’s not about whether you work for a 501c3, an LLC, or a publicly traded company. It is about a mindset. It is about admitting that how we have been doing things has gotten us far, but not far enough. It is about taking a risk. It is about taking a stand, a stand that says: Now is the time to do more, even if we have to do it with less. Now is the time to take everything we’ve got and apply it in ways that we never thought possible. Now is the time to take our intrepid spirits and inspire innovation and investment that leads to impact—huge, unprecedented, unimaginable impact.

The iSector already exists. The question is: are you part of it?

[Shout-outs: Unlike most of my posts, this one was awhile in the making and has a special place in my heart. I wanted the following people to know how much I appreciate their passion, smarts and support.  (alpha by first name) Alison Carl White, Carrie Zanger, Dana Robinson Slote, Dana Van Nest, Erin Hertel, Gloria Jordan, Heather Hill, Lenora Edwards, Lindsay Bealko,  Peg Giffels, Peter Drury, Scott Allard, Shanon Doolitte, Susan Howlett, and Zan McColloch-Lussier.]

The Inspiration Sector

It has always irked me that our sector is defined by what it is not, i.e. the ‘non’ profit sector. Even more irkesome is when you go back to the roots of the word profit, which Dan Pallotta does in his book Uncharitable, and realize ‘profit’ means ‘progress’. So we’re the non-progress sector. Hmmm.

Last time I checked, we were very much about progress. Progress on education, poverty eradication, sustainability, public health, the arts. You name it, we’re pretty much in it to make progress that will lead to a healthier planet with happier people living on it. It’s pretty audacious to think we can achieve this type of  progress given how challenging the issues are that we’re tackling. Like President Obama, we have the audacity of hope.

I think this type of audacity is inspiring.

Many alternatives to ‘non profit’ have been floated–third sector, social change sector, social sector. [And as Chanelle Carver pointed out in the comments below, there’s a logical extention of Hildy Gottlieb‘s concept of Community Benefit Organizations to Community Benefit Sector. Thanks Chanelle for making this connection!)

I’d like to add an alternative to the list: the Inspiration Sector. (And, if someone else has already floated this, then I’d like to second the submission!)

I realize it’d take time for us to adjust to an entirely new name and that there are pragmatic implications (think of all that web copy we’d need to update!), but I, for one, would love to wake up every day and say, “I’m off to work in the Inspiration Sector!”

Want work in the Inspiration Sector with me?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?