A LABEL THAT FAILS TO APPRECIATE OR IDENTIFY OUR PURPOSE
For too long we haven’t given it a second thought.
For too long we have accepted a label that fails to appreciate or identify our purpose.
Labeled so long ago we have come to accept it as necessary. A Federal Tax designation cobbled together by someone who needed a category or a box, marked us forever as third class citizens.
This is not just a National problem, this malady has become a Global contagion.
Perhaps it was a bureaucratic accident. Perhaps it was a designation necessitated by a failure to understand…that meant no harm. No matter the cause, it has left us to suffer the status of step children in a “Profit Centric” society.
We have become the inheritors of the world of “Non”. In the world of “Non” we are often compared pejoratively to our older, better siblings “Pro and Gov”. Yet great thinkers like Pericles, Tocqueville and Franklin identify us as that key element that propels and provides the capacity for society to achieve greatness through compassion. We are the third leg of our culture and as the third leg we provide balance that enables all to excel. It is a poor label for those that inherited a legacy that was ensconced at the birth of our democracy. We are an essential part of the proposition that demonstrates all power originates from the people.
So isn’t it about time to question? Isn’t it time to make a change? Or are we stuck with a label that fails to fully serve anyone? Shouldn’t we insist on a designation that recognizes our essential necessity and benefit?
Shouldn’t those of us who have labored in the vineyard insist that we describe ourselves by what we are, rather than by what we are not? We are not confined to the singular purpose of “profit.” And it is because we have such an extensive range of purpose that we appear to extend to the infinite. But that is no justification for the label “Non.”
For better or worse we are in a world that needs organization and labels. And those labels should not be taken lightly.
A PROFITABLE LESSON
Some may ask “what’s in a name?” When such is asked it may be instructive to be reminded of several of the most dramatic influences of branding in the last few hundred years. From within our own sector one of the strongest brands is the American Red Cross. Founded it 1881 by Clara Barton it has been a symbol of relief and mercy on countless battlefields and disasters. There is also the YMCA that helped our Nation realize it’s manifest destiny. Perhaps one of the most effective “for profit” brands was devised by the richest man in American history. Most think of Gates and Buffett when thinking of great wealth, but their wealth barely holds a candle to that of John D. Rockefeller. In comparable buying power there has never been anyone that has amassed as much capitol. In a time before electric light, the most common method of lighting was kerosene oil. The problem was the consistency of the oil was terrible at best and sometimes tragic at worst. In a stroke of genius Rockefeller decided to name his oil company Standard Oil. And a great enterprise was born.
In the Philanthropic sector labels are just as important as any other, perhaps even more. Whenever we are introducing our organization and our specific brands, we often immediately declare that we are a “nonprofit” organization. This label, which is almost like a suffix, is injected to communicate a benefit to our prospective donors. Few businesses would consider such behavior. Therefore our sector label or designation actually carries more weight or importance than those of the profit or government sectors.
There is an old story about a group of Zen Buddhist monks that preached a philosophy of disassociation from labels and the worldly. Their beliefs were
broadly accepted and led to spiritual enlightenment for many of their followers. This pleasant movement might have continued for many years were it not for the mistake of one of their followers. When one of their students, who had inherited great wealth, wanted to share his largess, his first question upon committing to the groups teachings was…and what name should I put on my check? To his confusion, the well intentioned student was not able to continue his search for enlightenment. For better or worse we are in a world that needs organization and labels. And those labels should not be taken lightly.
Although the roots of our sector can be found in early history, its recognition and development is a recent phenomenon. Some declare our roots can be found in the church or synagogue while others point to organizations like the Free Masons. But the true institutionalization of our Sector seems to have been founded in the early Nineteenth Century. Little wonder we suffer from a default name, as we seem to have grown up under the feet of those building a new Nation.
Unfortunately our younger and subordinate status allows others to stand upon the false assumption that they are our betters. If you think the status makes no difference, just recall the frequency that those in the “For Profit” world remind us that we should be run more like a business. Then reflect on the frequency that you hear anyone declare that an enterprise should be run more like a “nonprofit.” I suspect that if our designation were to be changed to better reflect what we aim to accomplish our brethren might begin to more quickly recognize our extraordinary achievements and professionalism.
If you were asked to name the three greatest technology leaders of the last twenty years you most probably would list Gates, Jobs and perhaps Zuckerberg. Few would think to mention Wales. Right now you are probably asking yourself, “Wales?” “Wales who?” Jimmy Wales is the CEO of one the greatest repositories of information in human history. Jimmy Wales is CEO of Wikipedia, a nonprofit organization.
We should insist on being identified by what we are, not by what we are not.
THE DIGNITY OF PURPOSE
In our society there is great weight given to designations and names. Therefore we should argue, we should insist, on being identified by what we are, not by what we are not. We should also argue that there is a name we can use that has the same simplicity and understanding that is used by those who operate under the aegis of profit or public administration. We are and have always been improvement organizations that focus on a purpose over profit or governance. That is not said to deride those that seek profit or public office. Without them many of the commodities and achievements of modern society would not be possible. Rather it is said to restore the dignity and perhaps even the nobility of serving a purpose. Let us declare that we are and should have always been For Cause Organizations, FCO’s. Let me say that again. We are For Cause Organizations.
After today, everyone should call for this new label that may resolve more than the problem of designation. No, it does not fit everyone, and some may need to remain in the land of “non.” But for the vast majority of us and for those that organize around the principle of betterment it is about time that we demand a description that brings a distinction and a description to what we are about. Who knows, our friends at the IRS may even find it a much easier designation for dealing with the ambiguities that have recently plagued their best efforts of designation and decision making.
I know the thought of changing ourselves to “For Cause Organizations” is daunting, even revolutionary. None-the-less the good it possesses far outdistances any negative. Many of us have applied the term Nonprofit to our very name. And in doing so we unwittingly continued the very ambiguity and step child label that relegates us to a lesser status. For those that use the designation the change will be seismic. But for them it is more important and significant.
To suggest this transformation, we must test it in application. We should consider labeling our activities and functions just as we have done with the old term “nonprofit.” We should consider the development of For Cause Leadership Schools. For Cause accounting and marketing would most likely follow. And of course we would have “For Cause Strategic Planning.”
Universities would have schools and degrees for “For Cause” professionals. Surely the title For Cause Professional carries greater bearing than “Nonprofit.” I contend all these changes bring a better description of who we are, along with all the prospects associated with regeneration and perhaps rebirth. The new title will encourage aspiring young students to consider a profession in the For Cause World rather than the alternatives. But the essential test would be in our explanation to outsiders. When asked what kind of organization we represent we could, with pride, declare we are “For Cause!” It not only does a better job of describing us, it elevates us. And in doing so may even propel us to accomplish more. It makes for a much better elevator speech.
There is a cautionary tale that may offer guidance though this consideration. In Africa one of the most coveted meals among native tribes is cooked monkey brains. Fortunately, for the monkeys, they are very effective at eluding local hunters. Except for one fatal flaw. Monkeys have an irresistible affinity for peanuts. They will do almost anything to acquire and eat peanuts. Knowing this, tribal hunters have developed a technique that takes advantage of the monkey’s compulsion. The hungry hunter will delicately place a peanut in a carefully carved gourd and then tie the gourd to a tree. Our hunter simply waits for a monkey to discover the gourd and the peanut. Because monkeys have a keen sense of smell the wait is not usually too long. Upon finding the gourd the monkey will reach inside the gourd and grasp the peanut in his hand. Once in hand the monkey discovers that his fist is too large to withdraw the prize. Naturally the monkey will pull on the gourd and try to escape. But our monkey will not let go. It is not long before the fate of our monkey is sealed. In many ways we are far too like our simian friends. We tend to hang on to what we have accepted. The comfort of what we have known is too alluring. It is time to let go of the world of “Non”.
When asked what kind of organization we represent we could, with pride, declare we are “For Cause!” It not only does a better job of describing us, it elevates us.
THE CHANGE MODEL
As this concept proposes a radical change for a large and significant segment of our economy, it is incumbent for us to question and measure the positive as well as negative implications of the proposition. To begin we should start with the very nature of change. Change of this kind is slow, particularly when the change requires the recognition of government institutions. One needs to only be reminded of the slow recognition of the work of The Wright Brothers. It was five years after their first flight at Kitty Hawk before the brothers had an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities for an Army contract. I often remind those that are impatient for change or expecting immediate return for new ideas that the first flight at Kitty Hawk was just 120 feet. New inventions like new ideas often start with something that appears to be small and of unlikely benefit.
If the idea intrigues you let’s examine the prospect of this change becoming real. Few know that there is a formula that determines the probability of making any change to the status quo. It is an instructive model that helps leaders considering the pluses and minuses of investing energy in a process that may require abandoning a significant element of what has been commonly accepted. The formula is:
DxPxF > R
R > 0
In this formula “D” is dissatisfaction, “P” is purpose, “F” is first steps and “R” is resistance. As the formula is a multiplication of factors, if any factor is zero the result is zero. And as “R” resistance is always more than zero there is no way to overcome resistance and change will not occur.
Let’s examine our factors for change, and see if there is enough energy to overcome natural resistance. First, are we dissatisfied? We may have some difficulty measuring our dissatisfaction. No, there are not throngs of people in the streets crying in agony over our sector name. But bring the topic up, and everyone agrees the name is a misnomer at best. In some ways, this is like asking if one dislikes their given name. For most, we have simply accepted the label determined by our parents. It is what we have grown to accept. But I contend it would not be acceptable if we were asked to rename our sector. I believe we are dissatisfied, but have ignored our own discomfort. No one would willingly want to be known as a “non.”
The second factor “purpose” is one that tends to require greater explanation. P or purpose is about ownership or responsibility. This factor correlates to the permission or authority to actually make the change. Is this our territory? On this point we have a very large “P”. This is about our work and the way our work should be identified.
The third and final factor in this multiplication problem is “F”, first steps. Change never occurs until, at least, a few of the steps to make the change are known. In this case we know the first steps. As with all change in our sector, we will need to expand the conversation to those that would be most impacted. And in doing so, gain momentum as well as action among those that will benefit from the new designation. The second step would be to acquire the recognition among those that are the progenitors of the “non” designation. Of course they will resist the change. Government bodies are notorious resisters to change. Many claim that if you look up resistance in the dictionary you find “see government.” None-the-less if we approach the government sector rightly they will, over time, agree…. Who knows, maybe all our siblings will agree.
Finally we must ask if we earned the right, the importance, to be called more than “non?” The “For Cause” sector or what has traditionally been designated the 501(c)(3) world, represents 10 percent of our National economy. It has grown faster than the other sectors even in the period of the great recession. We provide over $320 billion in wages and pump more than 800 billion dollars into the National economy every year. We have a strong balance sheet with over 2.71 trillion dollars in assets. The IRS has $1.6 million of us on their books. And that’s just the math. The reality is we heal the sick, give comfort to the homeless and oppressed. We educate children and we even plan missions to Mars. The evidence is clear, we have earned much more than the title “non.”
I hope you agree with the evidence. I hope you see the path to greater affirmation, greater achievement and greater recognition. All of us need to act and think more like For Cause organizations.
Yes, some of us will join the cause sooner than others. That’s the nature of change.
But let’s at least agree to begin the dialogue and perhaps even the debate.
In the end, all that is left for us to do is take up the cause. Isn’t that what we do?