The Lexicons of the Non-Profit Sector: do you speak non-profit?

By Gabrielle Ritchie : Independent Advisor, Consultant and Service Provider to Grantseekers and Grantmakers

1st April 2015

The vocabulary of the non-profit sector often comes under the spotlight not just for its exclusionary jargon-ness, but also because often meaning is not as widely shared as the very existence of the jargon would have us believe.  Questions are often raised about what we really mean by the jargon we use? Are we only talking to each other, or do others actually understand our lingo? Are we sharing our thoughts and messages best, to bring people along with us on our mission, or have we been taken in by our own hype?  Should NPO-speak be more or less corporate?  Should we speak stronger business language, or should the corporate sector learn to speak “non-profit”?  Does speaking corporate make us appear smarter and more attractive to funders?  What about those who can’t or don’t or won’t go corporate with their modes of communication? Are they automatically at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing funding? Are those who don’t speak corporate less likely to attract funding? What is the real difference between corporate and non-profit lexicons? If the donor world is widely English first-lanuagage, and the non-profit world predominantly English second-language (in South Africa, at least), how does this exacerbate the existing power-dynamics already at play between grantseekers and grantmakers?

Of particular interest to me is whether the language of marketing, branding, communications and PR is necessarily “corporate speak”, or whether this language can be (or perhaps has already been) appropriated, adopted and re-worked to suit the non-profit sector.  Can the non-profit sector comfortably speak branding and marketing without appearing is if it has corporatised?

The Non-Profit Service Providers Network

A key forum for such discussion is the Cape Town-based Non-profit Service Providers Network (NPSPN), a referral-based group of individuals and small companies who provide services, advice, consultancies and other forms of support to non-profit organisations operating in South African civil society.  This is an energetic group of people looking to share the particular challenges and experiences of working with non-profits, and seeking a forum where thinking and experience can be debated, up-ended, challenged, and spotlighted.  The network is a really useful meeting of minds, where pertinent issues can be surfaced and discussed amongst peers and colleagues.

What struck me at the March bi-monthly gathering of the NPSPN is that all of the for-profit service providers around the table speak very competent non-profit.  While most of those who provide services and products to non-profit organisations are themselves for-profit, most individuals appear to make “a living” rather than generate any vast profit from the fees they charge for their services.  It is here that the for-profit service provider and the non-profit to whom they are providing services become almost indistinguishable.  These service providers, for the most part, are as non-profit in outlook, world-view and language as the non-profits they serve and as those employed in non-profit organisations.  In effect, these service providers are no different in their goals and missions to most of the organisations they work with, and it raises the question of why we insist on boxing the small service providers as “for-profit” as if in some false juxtaposition to the organisations they serve.

At the March 2015 NPSPN meeting, a few issues of terminology and language were tabled for discussion. I am writing here less about the phenomenon of sector-based jargon, which exist in every sector, and more about the need to ensure that we are all understanding each other – in an including way, rather than languageing ourselves into a reformulation of the social elite in ways that are excluding, elitist, alienating and effectively quite imprecise and therefore inaccessible to so-called outsiders.  In a December 2012 post, Jodie Shupac reflects (referencing others) on the source of contemporary nonprofit jargon.  Shupac notes that much non-profit language has become corporatised, attributable to the fact that as governments have increasingly called on nonprofits to provide the services they once offered, the sector has felt the need to up its language game.  Taking their cues from the business world, says Shupac, non-profits are increasingly using language that is business-oriented, and is flavoured to convey their lean shapes and efficient functioning.

Issues that arose at the March NPSPN meeting focused, in one or other way, on the ways we talk about what we do. These issues included, amongst others:

1. The importance of marketing for non-profits – the importance of profiling one’s organisation, of having a communications strategy, of being visible on social media platforms and of ensuring the use of traditional media channels and platforms.  But the question was raised – Why? Why is this important if you are an organisation with extremely limited resources and a clear mission?  It was also suggested that the commercial “selling” language used in marketing is inappropriate for the NPO sector.  Is this the case?  Why is it inappropriate, and what compromises occur (possibly unwittingly) through the adoption of selling-speak?

2. In discussions on non-profit branding, what are we really talking about?  Are we talking the language of corporate branding, or does branding in the non-profit sector serve similar but ultimately separate functions?

3. If you have very limited budget, how do you best and most appropriately target your spend in ways that serve your organisational mission, and which also serve your need to promote your cause and/or your organisation?  Are there different levels of marketing available for different levels of spend?

4. How do corporate and non-profit clients differ?  Do small service providers need to fully adjust their ways of speaking, languageing and referencing to accommodate their different clients, depending on sector?

5. Are there specific features or characteristics of the NPO client – almost an NPO personality type, perhaps?  Are challenges specific to providing services to NPOs?

6. Are fees charged on a sliding scale from corporate, to big NPO, to small NPO?  Does one reflect the full fee and then include the discounted rate as an indication of the extent to which a for-profit provider is supplying a non-profit with a full discount?

Many of the questions raised, both explicitly and implicitly, weren’t answered in the session – but they remain pertinent and they warrant discussion.  If you  have any thoughts to share, please do!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s