Falling for the New Language of Social Good


Phil Buchanan, ED for the Center for Effective Philanthropy has started an interesting conversation over at the organization’s blog. He’s challenged all of us to think about the ways we idealize the market as a force in creating societal improvement and how we degrade the nonprofit sector in turn. In a response to the post on Twitter, I mentioned that I agreed with him and didn’t feel that the UnSectored community was truly supportive of the nonprofit community. UnSectored’s editor Jeff, and Laura, another blogger, were surprised by my comment. It’s not explicit statements that make me feel this way – rather, it’s the dominant language.

On UnSectored, and elsewhere, pure charity is being attacked. Mr. Buchanan talks about the idealization of markets, but I think it’s really a fetishisation of markets that’s occurring. We hear the words and phrases: social enterprise, value creation, sustainability, triple bottom line,. I could go on. Simply by using this language, we kneel at the altar of capitalistic thinking. We ignore the more important language of justice: sacrifice, engagement, social good, sustainability. Yes, I used sustainability twice. Yes, it was intentional. The different definitions matter.

The nonprofit community has allowed sustainability – and many others – to be stolen. Is the Catholic Church not sustainable? The American Red Cross? The Salvation Army? Suddenly, sustainability means earned revenue and an income-driven business model. This is simply a perversion of the truth, and it ignores the history of charity in this country.

We can see an important shift by looking at two definitions of social entrepreneurship. Ashoka, often credited with defining the field back in the 80s, says, “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems.” More recently, in a Forbes article, it’s described as such: Social enterprises have “the twin goals of social outcomes and earning free cash flow from revenue. Mission-related impact is the central criterion, but wealth creation isn’t ignored.” This changing definition is notable.

To understand this changing dialogue, it’s also helpful to look at David Brooks’ recent opinion piece about The Service Patch. We’ve made a transition where young people believe “community service has become a patch for morality,” Brooks says. His basic argument is that youth believe that in today’s society, you don’t have to be a good person; you can simply “do good” through things like service and nonprofit work. In previous blog posts, you’ve heard me talk about our desire to “create value” without making any meaningful sacrifice. We believe in doing good and doing well, because we have to. By believing in this tenet often espoused by the Forbes-defined social entrepreneurs, we can feel good about ourselves without making any sacrifices for a better community.

Nonprofits exist as a counterbalance to the injustice created by efficiency-based markets. I feel that some in the UnSectored community can forget that charity exists because markets create winners and losers. When revenue is a key driver of success, then efficiency plays an increased role. When efficiency takes a leading role, then the benefit of “all people” triumphs over the benefit of “each person.” This is an extremely important difference.

If we allow the continued destruction of pure charity to occur, there will be real consequences. We will never serve people with severe and persistent mental illnesses. We will never address the rehabilitation of sexual offenders. We will never address the needs of students least likely to succeed. These are inefficient and complex efforts. They’re also necessary. It’s why our work at Reach Incorporated is so unique.

It’s hard for people to hear this in a non-judgmental way, but it’s in that tone that I say it. It doesn’t make sense for schools to help the Reach Inc kids these days. We target the bottom 25% of entering 9th grade students. In a resource-constrained environment, it does not make sense for schools to invest in the students that are least likely to move from failing to passing.

By allowing ourselves at UnSectored, and other places, to fall prey to the new language of social good – to the festishisation of market solutions – we forfeit the importance of the nonprofit sector. Instead of sustainability, we can talk about community and donor engagement. Instead of efficiency of scale, we must talk about depth of impact. Instead of adopting business language, we must talk honestly about the role of business in creating social injustice. Unless we reclaim the language, we will never have an honest discussion about the importance of the nonprofit community.

The final truth is this: If I were to focus on efficiency and sustainability as priorities, a central tenet in the business-focused definition of social enterprise, I would no longer serve my kids. They’re too inefficient. They’re too difficult. They’re too resource-intensive. They’re the least likely to succeed.

But you know what else they are? My kids. Our kids. The future of our community. Appropriate use of resources and efforts toward my organization’s continued existence are both important. But, that is secondary. Let’s never forget that.

Photo credit: joefutrelle

Simply by using this language, we kneel at the altar of capitalistic thinking.

20 thoughts on “Falling for the New Language of Social Good

  1. Thanks for this Mark–I appreciate your thoughts in general and your comments on UnSectored specifically.

    I totally agree that we need to recognize and encourage the value of pure charity–you’ve certainly illustrated that well with this post. I am definitely guilty of “falling” for this new language, mostly because of where I work and what I read, somewhat because of my background, and maybe only a little because of how I think.

    My concern with all of this though is that it seems like there is an us vs. them mentality of nonprofit vs for-profit/social enterprise/whatever. (Not really in your post, it’s a little more even-keeled, but in other, similar arguments read.) I appreciate Phil’s series over at the CEP blog, but I hesitate when I think he steers too far into the territory of solidifying the nonprofit sector as a separate entity from the for-profit sector/ government sector.

    I think sectoral distinctions are important and necessary–but only if they are distinctions and not divisions. Each sector is different, based only on capital and accountability structures. I think people forget that its just a matter of accounting and reporting that makes the sectors different. Those things have huge repercussions, obviously, but when they are taken to an extreme, you get a us vs. them mentality between sectors.

    UnSectored is all about recognizing the strengths (and weaknesses) in each sector. We strive to be open and inclusive of all opinions around this issue. However, it’s important to recognize what language we use to get towards this goal. Language always influences what it is trying to communicate, and I in particular need to be more aware of how the words we use on UnSectored influence our message. Thanks for this reminder.

    • Appreciate Mark’s post very much. I wanted to weigh in regarding Jeff’s thoughtful comment, to disagree with this statement: “I think people forget that its just a matter of accounting and reporting that makes the sectors different.”

      I think it’s much, much more than that. It’s about fundamental purposes. My post on the word “nonprofit” from a couple of weeks ago discusses what differentiates the nonprofit sector.


      “The reach of philanthropy and nonprofits in the United States is deep and broad, as Olivier Zunz makes clear in an important new book, Philanthropy in America: A History. ‘From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, and from ordinary people who purchased Christmas seals to fight tuberculosis to those who wear pink ribbons to battle breast cancer, the nation has come to view philanthropy as both a quintessential part of being American and another means of achieving major objectives,’ Zunz writes. ‘Together they have forged a philanthropic sector that donors, beneficiaries, and the state recognize as a critical source of ideas as well as funding.’

      Moreover, we need to recognize that an important role of nonprofits is to call attention to and seek to reign in – or at least inspire others to reign in – the excesses of business. Claire Gaudiani, in her provocative book The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism, discusses examples such as the ban on DDT or the successful effort to convince McDonald’s to discontinue using foam containers in 1990.

      Gaudiani goes so far as to argue that “philanthropy saves … capitalism. … Generosity has saved capitalism over many, many decades, like a smart, kind friend watches out for a somewhat intemperate but gifted colleague, advising him throughout his life on the need for self‐restraint and better judgment.”

      As Cynthia M. Gibson has noted, ‘Nonprofits are …. frequently the sole voices in contesting governments and other institutions when they threaten to overtake public will.’ In a similar vein, Zunz notes that, ‘Philanthropists have invested their resources in the greater American fight over the definition of the common good. They have taken all sides in all the partisan encounters that have divided our society and have strategically intervened in essential debates on citizenship, opportunity, and rights.’ Zunz argues that this activity has ‘enlarged democracy.’

      Foundations and nonprofits have also invested in research that would be unlikely to attract for-profit investment capital – because of the difficulty of assessing the probability of generating a decent return – but have had a transformative effect on our lives. ‘Rocketry, commercial aviation, stock market portfolio analysis, and radar are just a few of the important ideas that have flourished because innovative donors supported innovative thinkers and built prosperity in America through gifts to grow intellectual capital,’ Gaudiani writes.

      It is the very “nonprofitness” of nonprofits that enables them to play the roles Gaudiani, Gibson, and Zunz describe.”

      • Thanks for your feedback Phil–I enjoyed that post. I stand by my statement, as if you look at the legal structures of nonprofits vs. corporations, it is only a matter of reporting and accounting that makes the difference.

        What you are talking about is culture and motivations. These are important, obviously, but I think I see what you are taking about as “what has been” and I’m thinking more about “what could be.” I may be too idealistic, but I do honestly feel that we do not have to have as such strict sector boundaries as laid out in your post. I think there should be clarification, and that there are roles, but by taking a more look at the sectoral interactions, we can all do our work a lot better.

        Thanks again for your input and for continuing the conversation.

        • Jeff, I hear you and think we have different perspectives. I am all for interactions across sectors and fully recognize that many, if not most, of our toughhest social problems require government, business, and philanthropy if they are to be successfully addressed. But we need to be sober about what each can — and cannot — effectively do. I think I am more convinced than you are that we need organizations that are able to pursue mission without the pressure to pursue profit. It is precisely because the pursuit of profit is such a powerful motivator that we need organizations that pursue only mission. Phil

  2. Joanne, Thank you for the kind comment – much appreciated!

    Jeff, I definitely see where you’re coming from, and I hope UnSectored can become the community you describe. Right now, I feel that the nonprofit community is under direct attack. We’re unsustainable. We’re inefficient. We lack leadership, direction, and strategic vision. It’s hard to hear that stuff and respond in a civil and balanced way. That being said, that continues to be my aspiration.

    My concern is that this discourse has become so dominant that it’s no longer being questioned. Market-driven “solutions” are being discussed as the only way forward. Part of me feels like I’m jumping up and down, waving my arms, and hoping someone will acknowledge that it’s all a little murkier than that.

    I agree with you – and the UnSectored ideal – that this work must be done across sectors. But, for this to occur, we’ll have to honestly discuss that different challenges must be addressed differently – and, while market-based solutions may create improvement in some areas, nonprofit solutions are our only hope in others. The discussion we need to be having is about which challenges fall into which category.

    • Mark,

      I hope we can both keep things civil when things get hard, as I am sure they will. A lot of people are benefiting from the status quo–and UnSectored wants to shake that up. I look forward to working with you to make things just a little murkier for everyone.

  3. Awesome post, Mark! There is just so much to engage with here that it’s a bit overwhelming. Thanks so much for highlighting Phil Buchanan’s posts (and thank you, Phil, for responding her!), which are now in my reading queue. And I was very troubled by the Brooks’ column and some of the statements he made. And for now, what I can say about the prevalent view of nonprofits is that I think the farther away people are on the spectrum of community-based interactions (as in, engaging directly with people in the community as the human beings they are, day-to-day), the more people are dealing in abstractions and therefore coloring how they see the larger systems operating in those communities. There’s more, but hard to type in 30 seconds or less . . . Look forward to hearing more!

  4. A useful definition of non-profits is that they should take on the risks too big for the private sector. The wisdom is in knowing which risks these are and the default setting should be the private sector.

    • Mr. Hacker,

      I find your definition interesting, as you paint the non-profit world as a complementary player – one that does the work for-profits are unwilling to do. I, on the other hand, feel that the non-profit world often is asked to address service gaps and oppression created by systems driven by efficiency and profit. While risk is a factor, I certainly don’t think it’s the entire difference between the sectors.

      And, while you have every right to your opinion, I don’t think the private (and, by this, I’m assuming you mean for-profit) sector should always be the default. A number of factors must be considered when deciding which approach would provide the best societal outcomes.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Service gaps and oppression are not caused by systems such as capitalism. Such events are caused by people, who elect not to serve a sector or who abuse the sytem and thereby cause oppression. Your normative bias I probably agree with but it should be applied to people’s behavior and not a system which through efficency and profit seeking has made a much greater contribution to society than probably any other sytem or organization. The nature and scale of the contribution of capitalism or the for-profit sector is the reason it should be the default answer to most problems. We just need to learn how to apply it in non-traditional applications, which has spawned the interest in social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship would not have emerged if people thought the current non-profit models were sufficient to address the social problems.

        • Thanks for your great thoughts!

          I definitely agree with your final sentence, though I think the emergence of social entrepreneurship involves our recognition of the need for both different program models and different business models.

          I don’t doubt that you know far more than I do about capitalist structures over time, so thanks for your clarifying thoughts. I’m left to wonder: How can we address those “who elect not to serve a sector or who abuse the sytem and thereby cause oppression.”?

          Unless we address that question, wouldn’t that issue exist in social entrepreneurship as well?

          • When you consider risk, which is where this discussion began, one must also consider economic return. To address the unserved sectors, where the risk is perceived as too high, we must look for agents who will accept lower returns. Social entrepreneurs, by definition, fit this risk-return profile and should be the agents identifying and serving these unserved sectors. With their success economically and socially they will demonstrate that the risks were not as high as perceived and thereby attract traditional capitalists to what will then be considered markets. At that point, the unserved sectors will start to disappear.

            Oppression is much harder and a subject I know much less about. The answer lies in education, social inclusion and access to information for the disenfranchised but the challenge seems to always be finding those to prioritize these issues.

  5. Pingback: 10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2012 | Social Velocity

  6. Roger Hamilton
    Nice article, i would like to add that in these ever evolving times people need
    to learn from how Social entraprenures bring about a real change to real issues by
    recognising the opportunities that lie within failures

  7. Pingback: 10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2012 | RETURN ON GIVING

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