Botox on a unicorn: Should the nonprofit sector change its name?


hongkongfood_downstairs_10Hi everyone, I am heading back to the US this week. It has been a fun vacation, though kind of exhausting with a two-year-old who refuses to eat anything or sleep more than three consecutive hours. This, and being an ED for nearly ten years, has taken a toll on me. I keep getting comments like, “Your son is so cute! Hm…you must have started your family late, huh? How old are you, 44, 45?” After the fifth time, asked by a tofu dessert vendor, I just said, “No, I did not start a family late! I just look way older than I am! Time has not been kind to me! Thanks for reminding me, lady!” Then I softly wept into my bowl of hot silken tofu with ginger caramel sauce, thinking that maybe I should get some cosmetic surgery here, since it’s way cheaper than in the US.

But anyway, today’s topic. In the past few months, I’ve been hearing more and more people suggest that the nonprofit sector should change its name. “Defining ourselves by something we’re not is pretty ridiculous,” said some very smart people during a happy hour. “Yeah!” I agreed, getting up in arms, “that’s like calling a woman a ‘non-man’! Or hummus a ‘non-guacamole’! Ridiculous! Let’s grab our torches and pitchforks!”

Suggestions for new names instead of “nonprofit” are numerous—with the basic building blocks being words like “social,” “community,” “impact,” “benefit,” “public,” “purpose,” “mission,” and “cashflow-related night-terrors”—but none of them perfectly fits and encompasses what we do. I asked the NWB Facebook community for their thoughts on various potential monikers:

The Impact Sector: Kind of violent, like car crashes. “Makes me think of crushing garbage into compact cubes.”

The Social Sector: Kind of wishy-washy. “That sounds like all we do is go to parties.”

The Social Impact Sector: Kind of violent, yet wishy-washy. “Sounds like all we do is go to parties that involve crushing garbage into compact cubes.”

The For-Purpose Sector: “Makes me roll my eyes” says a colleague, and I have to agree with her. It reminds me of “all-purpose flour.” This term sounds half-baked.

Social Profit Sector: Sounds awkward, and shouldn’t we get away from this business concept of “profit” altogether?

The Mandate-Driven Sector or Mission-Driven Sector: I can’t imagine some kid saying, “When I grow up, I’m going to work for a mandate-driven organization.” (“Billy, stop making up imaginary nonsense and do your chores!”)

Public Benefit Sector, or Community Benefit Sector: These are not altogether horrible, and “I work for a CBO” doesn’t sound bad.

Some recommend we just stick to “not-for-profit.” Or NGO, since that’s the global term used in many countries. Some suggest we adopt names that actually reflect what we do, hence the Get-Sh!#-Done-With-Duct-Tape-and-Sheer-Will Sector or the We-Run-Clinics-and-Save-Lives-with-what-You-Spend-on-Bottled-Water Sector.

Another colleague recommended Justice League, which I think is cool, because then we’re each like superheroes. My superhero identity will be “Meeting Man”: Have

Businessman Wearing Cape --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Businessman Wearing Cape — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

no fear! When evil strikes, citizens can rely on Meeting Man and his abilities to set agendas and facilitate a solution-focused discussion that ends on time! (I’m going to pitch this to Marvel Comics. Other characters include Meeting Man’s sidekick Superaccurate Notetaker, and arch-nemesis The Pontificator).

If we had to change our name, I and some people recommend “The Unicorn Sector” because we are magical and make the world better. Or maybe the “Awesomeness Sector.” Think about the word “business.” It really just means “busy-ness,” how one occupies one’s time, but through hundreds of years of usage, it’s developed its own meaning. Well, if we stick with it for hundreds of years, awesomeness will develop its own meaning: “When I grow up, I want to work in the awesomeness sector.” “Aw, that’s great, Billy, just like your mom. Now do your chores and I’ll let you teleport to Pluto for thirty minutes.”

What, like your suggestions are so much better.

I’m not a marketing or branding expert, as you can tell by the way I dress, so I welcome counter-points and discussion on this post. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the argument for changing our sector’s name is a red herring, another of the shiny and distracting “innovations” that plague our field and take focus away from the much more complex, messier, less sexy actions that we need to take to strengthen our work.

It seems a lot of us believe that rebranding is the miracle cure that our orgs needs to succeed in the often-brutal nonprofit Hunger Games. We start thinking of changing our organizations’ names or logos, or redesign our websites, hoping it would help to keep our work going for another fiscal year. And some of us who think about the sector as a whole start believing that if the nonprofit sector itself rebrands—starting with a name change—then many of the entrenched weaknesses will just resolve themselves.

While I definitely agree that there is power in words and language, and that the term “nonprofit” is far from perfect, the name is not the biggest challenge our sector faces, and the more time and energy we spend on it, the less time we have to tackle fundamental issues preventing us from fully doing our work. Here are a few of these issues, which I’ve written plenty about so I won’t elaborate too much on:

Funding dynamics, and the adversarial relationship between funders and nonprofits. We’re supposed to be partners solving the same societal problems, but one wields vastly more power than the other, and there’s a huge wall between the two. This power imbalance has been perpetuating a really unstable, ineffective financing system where nonprofits are forced to spend a significant amount of our time justifying our work instead of doing it, subjected to severely awful things like the Overhead Myth and the Sustainability Myth.

The business sector’s superiority complex, and our parallel inferiority complex. Overall, there is often a lack of understanding from business people—even on occasion our donors and board members—on what nonprofits are and what we can do. For instance, as I wrote in “Dear business community, please remember these 10 things about nonprofits,” unlike businesses, as our programs become more successful, we increase in costs without a matching increase in revenues. And yet, we’ve also internalized this myth that businesses are more efficient and effective, leading us to adapt crappy systems and habits, such as inequitable hiring practices.

Equity, diversity, cultural competency, inclusion, etc. I’ve written about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE), where large mainstream organizations absorb the majority of the funding to serve marginalized communities, and those same communities are left with pennies and often out of the discussion. I’ve also written about how we’ve been so focused on increasing the demands for leaders of color while not paying attention to growing the supply of professionals of color in the sector.

These are just three issues we need to tackle. We haven’t even touched on the need to increase compensation for nonprofit staff, the need to address staff burnout and turnover, the growing complexity and quantity of the challenges our communities face, the fact that foundations are spending less than 1% on leadership, and some other way more important stuff. Honestly, if we can solve some of these problems—if all funds were multi-year general operating, if all nonprofit professionals were paid what they’re worth so they can stay in the sector, if we nonprofits can focus on achieving long-term outcomes instead of reporting on which funders paid for what part of our operations, if communities that are most affected by inequities are trusted and funded to lead in the problem-solving, if everyone can work together effectively to address societal challenges—then we could be called The Fluffy Bunnies Sector for all I care.

sleeping_unicorn_by_kasablankaI recommend we all just embrace the term “nonprofit” for the imperfect, sexy title that it is and start being more vocal about how awesome and necessary our work is. I don’t think the name is what’s been preventing people from entering into the sector, or for people to leave the sector, or for organizations to work effectively together, or for us to have an awesome TV show about our work. Yes, branding has definitely gotten more important, and we should be allocating more funds to this area, and there are lots of success stories of organizations that rebrand with great results. But from what I know, rebranding is a serious process, and you don’t do it when your ducks are not lined up, like your board is disorganized, or your org is going through leadership change. To think about changing our sector’s name without first addressing the fundamental challenges like funding dynamics and lack of diversity and burnout—that’s like giving botox to a really exhausted unicorn. Yeah, the unicorn may look better, but it’s still exhausted.

Let me know your thoughts.

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  • Tom Walker

    Your concluding remarks are on target. The sector of the economy is the “non-profit” sector. Yet when asked, “where do you work?” Or ” what do you do”Isn’t the answer the name of the organization? That is the entre to talking about what one does. There are other more serious issues as pointed out.

  • House0fTheBlueLights

    Conversation with the business editor from Crain’s Chicago Business: me: “Why don’t we see more on the nonprofit sector?” Him: “Nonprofits aren’t businesses.” Me: Couldn’t speak because I was banging my head against the wall.

  • KazaksFlea

    One distinction that I’d like to see more made of (both in the area of terminology and legal/tax definition) within the “non-profit” world is between entities like Mega-Huge University Y or Mega-Huge Hospital X (affiliated with University Y) and piss-ant grassroots entity organizing homeless LGBT youth to advocate for themselves with a staff of one part time person and 5 volunteers. Certainly there are different parts of the tax codes that are used by the big eds/meds and whatnot, but they’re all “non-profit sector.” That just seems crazy.

    The line between service provision and organizing is pretty fuzzy but a continual challenge as well (especially when fundraising). The growing trend towards privatizing social services through “Social Impact Investing” is nauseating ( – so please stay away from those terms. “Mum! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it!!”

  • Paul the Fossil

    Really enjoyed the first half of this piece! As a lifer in the sector (and now an E.D.) I’ve often mused about how poor a name for it “nonprofit” actually is. Not only because it defines us by what we aren’t but because it is in some ways actively misleading to the hearer. (For example have you ever had a supporter of your organization get indignant upon discovering that something called a “nonprofit” has finished two fiscal years in a row in the black? And declare loudly that you therefore no longer “need” her $200/year? Sigh.)

    But sadly no, I don’t have a better suggestion. All the ones you list…blea. I actually spent a few years on the funder side of things as a foundation program officer, and foundation people are forever kicking this topic around but I never heard or myself came up with a better one.

    By default I probably end up thinking we should go with “NGO”. It’s not really a lot better than “nonprofit” but maybe is on balance at least a little bit.

    • And also scream if you run a deficit – because then, of course, you’re poorly run.

  • Betsy MacMichael

    I agree it’s not an essential concern compared with others, but also agree our name is not great. In fact, it’s inaccurate for reasons related to social enterprise and the legality of generating profits within certain parameters. (the answer to that issue has been adoption of “not for profit” but that’s a mouthful. I like “community benefit sector”, cbs? -best of your suggestions. But private sector people would take exception. (“what’s not important to society about making computers or tampons?”).. So… as long as the unicorn in the picture is asleep, not dead, I’ll trudge on as E.D. within the nonprofit sector.. Betsy Durham, NC

  • verucaamish

    Where I land is – mission/community driven organization (horrible wording!). What DOES differentiate nonprofits from for-profits is the fact we are accountable via the board of directors to our mission (which has to be focused on filling a community need). I think about AOL. I know AOL exists as a corporation but it’s long moved away from being an internet service provider and email platform. If it had a mission that was beyond making money, wouldn’t it have to close up shop for being so far away from it’s identity? That’s the difference between the two sectors. There was a marriage equality organization in Massachusetts that closed up shop once marriage equality passed. In our work we are in a constant grind to justify our existence. The only justification a for profit needs to make is – are we making money?

  • David Marzahl

    I appreciate the intent of the article and would posit another name I’ve been trying out for the past year — the Social Purpose Sector. It seems to be working, in that it generates interesting conversation among peers, partners and, most importantly, millenials who are the future of our sector. As a good friend and colleague in Chicago has repeatedly said, we are the only part of the economy and workforce that says we are NOT something. At the end of the day, words are just words and we clearly need to focus on all the other issues you raise, but it’s got to start somewhere.

    • I like “purpose” rather than “profit”. It’s not really about profit – it’s about impact, purpose… getting stuff done!

  • Well, for years my daughter’s friend thought I didn’t get paid since i ran a non-profit (which, compared to her father, a lawyer, is kind of true). But I’m OK with the name. Of course we could just take a cue from our allies & pals in the LGBTQQA community and have an acronym that keeps changing and that only insiders understand. Like, given your ideas above, we could be the SCIBPPMGSDWDTJ Sector and if anyone asks what it stands for we can disdainfully say “I can’t believe you don’t know” while helping ourselves to another portion of hummus.

  • Some good (and not so much!) suggestions for new names–but as always, I enjoy your post and its intent. And empathize on the kiddo front, too! When naming my site, dedicated to nonprofit professionals, I intentionally used the term Third Sector vs. “nonprofit” . In any case, I agree– and think the most useful approach is to evangelize the work, impact, and progress that gets done in this sector of rock stars and super heroes!

  • Vu, great article as usual. I was just having a conversation with someone about this. In Central California, we dropped the term nonprofit back in 2008 in favor or referring to it as the community benefit sector and we referred to nonprofit organizations as Community Benefit Organizations (CBOs). We did think nonprofits communicates the value of the work cbos engage in and it detracts from the awesomeness. Author Hildy Gottlieb wrote an article that captures the rationale back in 2009.

  • Nancy Steele

    There is a term they use in the EU that I can’t remember right now, but searching around on the internet I can across the following, which I just had to share. I think I want to work for a BINGO or maybe a QUANGO in my next life.

    “Nongovernmental organizations are an heterogenous group. A long list of acronyms has developed around the term ‘NGO’.These include:
    INGO stands for international NGO, such as CARE;
    BINGO is short for business-oriented international NGO;
    RINGO is an abbreviation of religious international NGO such as Catholic Relief Services;
    ENGO, short for environmental NGO, such as Global 2000;
    GONGOs are government-operated NGOs, which may have been set up by governments to look like NGOs in order to qualify for outside aid;
    QUANGOs are quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, such as the W3C and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which is actually not purely an NGO, since its membership is by nation, and each nation is represented by what the ISO Council determines to be the “most broadly representative” standardization body of a nation. Now, such a body might in fact be a nongovernmental organization–for example, the United States is represented in ISO by the American National Standards Institute, which is independent of the federal government. However, other countries can be represented by national governmental agencies–this is the trend in Europe.” (from

  • Jenn Dean

    Great post, and great comments. What’s sad about the word “Non-Profit,” as stuck as we are currently with that term, is the connotation that, as one poster put it, we don’t need donor money if we aren’t in the red or in crisis mode. The term also continues the erroneous belief that because one works for a non-profit, that one will sacrifice pay in order to ‘do good.’ Not just pay, but a computer that works in real time, a desk that has four working legs, and furnishings that aren’t salvaged from street corners.

  • ARB89

    This is a hot button for me and has been for years. I think the government made it easy and yet we fight the obvious. In your 501(c)3 letter you will find the phrase “Public Benefit.” We are in the purpose ,and receive special treatment, because our missions are to serve a public benefit. Why resist that as our field’s title. For profit corporations are to generate a return for their owners/investors. We are in the business of providing a service to the pubic that would otherwise go unaddressed. It the public sector that defines our purpose. I see no defense for creating something more arcane. I raised this point recently and was admonished that the word public has been co-opted by the government as its defining characteristic, but I don’t hear the general public calling the government their ‘public sector’, though the media sometimes does. I think they say government when that is what they mean. I think we can take ownership of Public Benefit Sector, and bury not-for-profit the way any corporate venture would bury “not for Public Benefit” if that were the term applied ot them.

  • Joshua Schukman

    As always Vu, you bring it with this article! I have to admit, I was a proponent of a name change, but this has made me reconsider. Especially when you put it this way:

    ‘distracting “innovations” that plague our field and take focus away from the much more complex, messier, less sexy actions that we need to take to strengthen our work.’

    This is so true. People often forget that social change doesn’t happen quickly and it’s rarely sexy. Social change happens when we come in every day and take action on injustice. Social change is also about consistency – that daily work of letting people know that you’re there, you care, and that you can do something to help them in the long run.

    In a society so hooked in rapid innovation and instant gratification, it’s refreshing to remember that ‘overnight successes’ are nearly always the result of steadily staying a proven course over a long period of time.

  • aa0145

    To be honest, the idea of the non-profit is dead. It was killed by commercialization. Non-profits should just register as b-corps and get it over with.

  • Have you read this recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review re: Plural Sector?

  • Chris

    A name change is definitely in order! Non profit only refers to the fact that we don’t distribute money to shareholder and doesn’t capture what we really do at all. My vote is for “Social Profit Sector”. Chris, Chief Blogger @

  • Patrick Lunn

    Over my many years in the sector, I’ve had it drilled into my head that we are, and should be referred to as, a “not-for-profit,” never a “non-profit.”

  • Instead of botox, unicorns need better marketing
    When we think of the social sector (notice I didn’t say nonprofit), we need to consider the context. There are many pieces to a quilt, cut from different cloth, and with a variety of patterns. Each serves a purpose, but without the stitching that holds it together, a quilt cannot keep anyone warm. It is the social sector that stitches the pieces of government and for-profit organizations together and keeps a community whole.

    Not-for-profit is simply a financial agreement with the government. In lieu of distributing profits to shareholders, a social benefit organization distributes profits through investments in the community. For that social exchange, a nonprofit does not pay taxes. Dan Pallotta said, “We’ve been trained to think that it’s our fiduciary duty to keep costs down and maximize the amount of money going to programs…But I think it’s our fiduciary duty to make the biggest difference possible…Right now, in the interest of funding programs in the short-term, we are annihilating our potential to fund programs on a much bigger scale in the long-term.”

    Remember the NFL was a nonprofit until this year. We’ve got to think bigger and longer term and stop thinking of nonprofits as poor and struggling. Nonprofits are corporations with all the power and rights of any corporation. We have the power to command what we need, but we’ve got to get over this ingrained mentality that frugality equals morality or marketing equals evil. What’s more sexy than making a community an ideal place to live, work, and raise a family?

    • Morri Young

      Hey Sherry … Can I quote from this? or is there a link to an article which reflects your thinking here? (Why write it badly myself when you have written it so well already?…!!)

      • Feel free to quote at will! (Remembering to use ellipses and exclamations) 🙂 Thank you for the kind words Morri…!

  • Joanne Fritz

    Love the article! I think you really have to be careful when changing a name that has been around for so long. Also, all of these alternatives are worse when it comes to remembering it. Community Benefit Sector is the best alternative I’ve seen but, really, it would be hard to remember. The words don’t just roll off the tongue. I’ve seen many companies and nonprofits change their names over the years and often they have to ditch them because they don’t mean anything or they are worse than what they started with. I rather like nonprofit (no hyphens please). It’s short, familiar and works great with social media as in #nonprofit or #npo. I agree with you that the whole discussion is a distraction. This is all in-house and means nothing to the general public. Too often we’re just talking to each other rather than to our supporters and donors. We really must stop.