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The Crux of Language

11 July 2013 at 11:53 am
Staff Reporter
Is it time to change the language around the Not for Profit sector and harness an opportunity to state what the sector is about and highlight its work for the common good, asks Change Management Professional, Claudia Perry-Beltrame.

Staff Reporter | 11 July 2013 at 11:53 am


The Crux of Language
11 July 2013 at 11:53 am

Is it time to change the language around the Not for Profit sector and harness an opportunity to state what the sector is about and highlight its work for the common good, asks Change Management Professional, Claudia Perry-Beltrame.

At the recent annual Community Sector conference titled 3rd Sector, 1st Choice, organised by the Illawarra Forum, I noted for the first time how the community sector defines itself namely by what it is NOT. It is Not for Profit, non-government and the 3rd sector.

The Illawarra Forum’s CEO, Nicky Sloan, stated in her opening speech, that she has chosen the title 3rd Sector because she wanted to highlight that this sector was not a bronze medallist or third in ranking, but rather important and a 1st Choice. So if a sector refers to itself as what it is not, then the question arises what is it? And how can it be seen as a 1st choice?

It is a well-known fact that language plays an important part in how people see themselves, in creating perceptions, in developing relationships, and in culture. If language defines who you are then perception of those not involved defines how they see you.

And changing this perception through language may be one of the solutions to tackle the many challenges in the future: the challenge of recruiting a larger and well skilled workforce, the challenge to do more with less due to increasing disadvantage and reduced funding, and the challenge in promoting the sector rather than promoting the work in the sector.

Let’s have a look at the language and what a change could look like. Sectors can define themselves by a governance model: government, for-profit or Not for Profit. But there are other definitions. Government use the term public sector and the for-profits use the term private sector. Therefore there is an opportunity for the Not for Profit sector to actually state what it is about and highlight its work for the common good.

A potential name might be the society sector.

The thesaurus describes the term organisation as government, groups of various types or an arrangement. ‘Organisation’ is ambiguous and has a one and all approach. Business includes terms such as professional, occupational and industry.

While professionalism already exists, in fact has to exist in the society sector, the question arises ‘is it clearly visible? The distinction between a provider with paid staff and a volunteer organisation may become more important, with the former being called a business and the latter an organisation.

Defining the many industries within the society sector will highlight how widespread this sector is and how it makes valuable contributions at many levels. The Australian Bureau of Statistics already uses the term Health Services and Social Assistance Industry to describe an important aspect of the ‘society sector’. Yet this term seems rarely used in describing the business of providing social services.

The new language applied in every day work and expression has the potential to change how government and politicians view the importance of the sector, changes the perception of citizens and has the potential to attract recruits to the Industry in a more meaningful way.

The change has the ability to differentiate between the sectors. It may open doors for more private-society sector relationships and collaborations for the benefit of the people. After all, the private sector wants to be seen to do Good in society too, and the language says it all.

About the author

Claudia Perry-Beltrame is a Change Management Professional specialising in workplace culture and challenging the status quo.

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  • Lorna hempstead says:

    How right is Claudia Perry-Beltrame. The one thing I would most like to change is the core terminology of “not-for-profit.” As the president of a small community organisation I spend too much of my time defending to non-members and the community at large, our right to have a healthy bank balance at year end. For the majority of the public “nfp” means to them that you can’t make a profit, it is immoral for us to have funds in the bank etc. I wuld much prefer to describe our organisation as a “society sector” or similar rather than “not-for-profit”!

    • Hi Lorna,

      It is so true that the perception of people is that NFPs are not allowed to make profit. It is not just a perception in the NFP employees minds, but also the for-profit employees minds. How often do I hear that they will not support such and such a charity because they made so much profit. That a NFP needs to have funds for future investment is really no different to any other business, but it is a concept that is not easily understood.
      And lastly, with all the funding changes in this sector, making money from diverse sources will become more and more important, hence, so will the need to have reserves for future quiet periods.

  • Louise Arkles says:

    Yes, I agree! A few of us in philanthropy have been tossing around potential terms for several years now – terms that  describe our sector and capture our shared purpose – my preference being the Community Benefit sector.  

    The big challenge will be to achieve consensus and take-up of any new name, preferably driven from the bottom-up, if the patronising top-down example of DisabilityCare is anything to go by!

    • Hi Louise,
      Thanks for giving a comment to my opinion piece. It is good to see that this is in people’s mind. Could this be driven by ACOS or NCOSS as the representatives of the Community Sector? It would require multi-sector input, as NFPs are working across so many different areas.
      From this I also have a question for you: How would the Community Benefit Sector fit with all the other NFPs e.g. aged care, education etc who may confuse this term with the current Community Sector, as it uses the same words? Just more food for thought.

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