Some nonprofits drop label to better define themselves
You can call your custodian a sanitation engineer, but someone will still need to swab out the bathrooms.
Likewise, you can change the term “nonprofit” to “community benefit,” “social enterprise,” “mission driven” or “Elvis” — what the heck, at least it’s a name everyone recognizes — and somebody will still have to feed the hungry, house the homeless and employ more than 438,000 Michiganians.
So does it make sense when people like Ron Kagan and Doug Stewart try to sweep “nonprofit” into the sanitation engineer’s dustpan?
“We’re defining ourselves officially as something we don’t do,” says Kagan, director and CEO of the Detroit Zoo.
“Imagine if the Declaration of Independence was the Declaration of Non-Dependence,” says Stewart, executive director of the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation.
Then he follows with a key question:
“What are we for?”
He and Kagan are sitting in generator-powered dimness in a conference room at the zoo. There’s a power failure on this blustery morning, and among the things they’re for is electricity.
They’re also in favor of referring to themselves by their primary purpose, which is to make a difference. To be of consequence. To change the world for the better, in ways as large as the United Way and as modest as the United Sisters of Charity food pantry, open Fridays from 11 a.m. to noon in Highland Park.
And they’d like to subtly reposition themselves for people who hear “nonprofit” and think “non-starter” — like two clusters of smart, aware teenagers in Ann Arbor who helped make Stewart a low-key evangelist for some fresh terminology.
“At one point, I was saying ‘social impact sector,’ ” says Stewart, whose organization’s focus is children and families in need.
“What about environmental impact?” responded Kagan, whose preservation and conservation interests extend far beyond the campus of the zoo.
The compromise, and the focus of their muted campaign:
The search for something better than “nonprofit” began a decade or so ago. None of the alternatives have taken hold, partly because a lot of people in the sector like “nonprofit” just fine or are too busy solving problems to give it much thought.
It’s short, it’s been the dominant term since it elbowed past “charity” in the early 1960s, and it’s accurate. Or, to stay in format, it’s non-inaccurate.
“We just think there’s an opportunity to do something better,” Stewart says charitably.
“I understand all the arguments,” says Kagan, somewhat less charitably. “I just find them so weak.”
He’s more swayed by Stewart’s focus groups of students from his kids’ high-achieving high school in Ann Arbor.
“How many of you want careers in the nonprofit sector?” Stewart asked.
The response, as they might say at the Insect Sciences Museum: Crickets.
OK, he continued, “How many of you would like your careers to have a positive impact on society?”
A swarm of hands hit the air.
“They only saw nonprofits as something you volunteer in,” he says. The future doctors and lawyers didn’t realize the University of Michigan Health System, to name one example, is tax exempt.
To name another, so is Ohio State University, where Stewart picked up his MBA — and where a professor discussing nonprofit finances ignored the university and instead brought in the bookkeeping records of his wife’s garden club.
Dispensing with “nonprofit” is a respect issue, Stewart says, and a branding issue. More than that, “This is a talent issue.”
Figures from the Michigan Nonprofit Association show that more than 42,000 state organizations hold assets of nearly $217 billion and have a combined payroll of nearly $20 billion per year. If you want to involve the best and brightest, it’s poor policy to have them think the entire sector revolves around ladling soup on Thanksgiving.
Stewart adopted “for impact” from Shirley Stancato, the president and CEO of New Detroit.
Stancato and her staff also use “social impact,” and “every time someone says it, we look at each other: ‘Another one!’ ”
“There’s a lot in a name,” she says, something she realized even before she started at New Detroit.
Back then, she was in the business world — which, come to think of it, nobody ever calls “not-for-loss.”