Borrowed Terms

Pop quiz: What is the basic aim of any non-profit organziation? (or for-impact, a term I’m growing attached to more and more)

  1. Use force or the capacity for force to protect one's nation-state and secure its international policy aims
  2. Generate financial profit for the organization's owners / stakeholders
  3. Create positive change in our communities

The answer is obviously the third option. Yet, many of the ideas and concepts in our sector have been borrowed from the military and business worlds. I was reminded about this fact not long ago by an article in the Harvard Business Review that encourages for-profit businesses to stop using battle metaphors: make customers, not war. In our line of work, we aim to make change, but we talk about tactics and strategy (as pointed out in the HBR article, originating from the ancient Greek term for a military general), cost-benefit analyses, and after-action reviews, among others.

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely good ideas and concepts we can borrow from these areas. Both have had to grapple with balancing efficiency and impact, planning for and adapting to complex and changing situations, and avoiding mission creep (oops, there’s a borrowed term again!). In some ways, the stakes are higher when we start talking dollars and firepower: just take a look at the worst-case scenario in the three spheres, what happens if they don’t bring their best game to the table. For the military, it’s death and destruction. In business, financial ruin for individuals, companies, even whole financial systems. Non-profits? Well, people and communities don’t grow and improve, or even end up backsliding, and individual organizations may have to shut their doors. On the other hand, charity and government funds will continue to come through in some form, even with the sector increasingly under the microscope. I’m being somewhat flippant here, but in many ways non-profits haven’t faced the same degree of challenge as our colleagues in arms and in suits.

Are there any terms that we use regularly that have a non-profit or for-impact origin? One that comes to mind is program evaluation, with Michael Quinn Patton noting that “Evaluation, like the urban poor, grew up in the projects – large government structures aimed at concentrating limited resources on seemingly unlimited problems”1. We don’t have straightforward metrics of success like territory held, market share, or financial bottom line (pervasiveness of the overhead myth notwithstanding). Building better communities and changing people’s lives requires a different approach, one that both provides accountability and facilitates learning.

Again, I’m not advocating for us to drop useful military and business terms from our vocabulary. Instead, let's be aware of where those ideas come from and what baggage they bring, recognize our own contributions, and continue developing our own ideas – perhaps in the near future we’ll start seeing non-profit terms enter others’ lexicons!

What are some other terms that have a non-profit origin? What for-impact ideas are ripe for introducing to other sectors? Share below or on Twitter!

  1. Patton, M.Q. (1994). Developmental evaluation. Evaluation Practice, 15, 311-319.