A Sector That Doesn’t Know What To Call Itself
How do you describe the industry in which your organisation operates? Third Sector? The Voluntary Sector? The Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS)? Nonprofit or Not-for-Profit? Civil Society?
I have attended charity board meetings where two or more of these terms have been used within the space of a few minutes. If those of us who work in the sector are unsure what to call our industry, it’s little wonder the general public gets confused about the kind of organisations we represent and what we do.
Understanding what the sector is not doesn’t help identify what it is
One of the key problems around agreeing the best umbrella term for the sector is that it’s so much easier to identify what it is not rather than what it stands for. We know it covers organisations that are not part of the public sector (run by government), nor part of the private sector (profit-making private enterprise).
However, the organisations which are left form a huge group and are also incredibly diverse. Mention the voluntary sector and the word ‘charities’ will come first to mind for most people. But the sector also covers everything from Neighbourhood Watch groups to social enterprises to national and international charities and all sorts in between.
So, does it matter whether we call our industry the ‘Voluntary and Community Sector’ or the ‘Third Sector’, or even – my least favourite – the ‘Civil Society’? Well, yes, I believe it does. And here’s why. . .
The way we describe our sector affects opinion
Words come with definitions, but beyond a dictionary entry, many of the words we use can have multiple meanings. They also have connotations, which is when a word invokes an idea or emotion over and above its literal or original meaning. As an example of this, think about the word ‘charity’. My Thesaurus picks out the following words to describe charity:
Benevolence, magnanimity, compassion, kindness, mercy, tolerance, donation, aims, welfare, handout
It’s clear the word ‘charity’ enjoys many positive connotations, but did you feel a positive emotion when you read ‘welfare’ and ‘handout’? Perhaps your response was more ambivalent.
“Charities should stick to their knitting”
In recent years, many longstanding charities have ‘upped their game’ significantly in response to the Government’s call for them to become more business-like. The reason? Ostensibly, so they could position themselves better to compete against for-profit businesses to deliver outsourced public services.
The call to action may have been well intentioned. And it’s true that in response charities up and down the country set about transforming the way they work. But the negative inference is also undeniable: to ask organisations to become more business like is to imply they are not professionally minded in the first place.
There was furore a few years back when Brooks Newmark, in response to a question following his first public speech as Minister for Civil Society, said that charities should “stick to their knitting” and “keep out of the realm of politics”. In fairness, it was later argued that these widely derided comments were taken out of context, but it does highlight a patronising attitude towards the sector which can be found among some politicians, journalists and indeed society as a whole.
With little knowledge of the breadth and complexity of the sector, it is no surprise that people are inclined to assume the label can be interpreted literally. ‘Voluntary and Community Sector’ works perfectly well for volunteer led and community-centred groups. However, if you’re a registered charity with both paid staff and volunteers, and your organisation competes for public sector contracts, then the same label may mean you have to work harder to prove your credentials as a professionally run organisation.
How dropping ‘charity’ from an organisation name can pay off
In 2012 Prostrate Cancer dropped ‘charity’ from its name because of what the organisation perceived to be negative connotations. It renamed itself Prostrate Cancer UK, believing that it would better communicate the services and support it offers to men suffering from the disease.
Seamus O’Farrell, director of marketing and communications at the time, said in an interview: ‘The word “charity” can carry connotations for consumers that it is an organisation where talented amateurs work, but we provide advice to nurses, support, and information from healthcare professionals and researchers.’
In other words, even though Prostrate Cancer UK continues to deliver all of the positive values we would normally associate with any charitable organisation, it felt the need to go through an expensive but essential rebrand to be taken seriously in its role delivering a commissioned public service. The move paid off: in the following year the charity entered the Third Sector Charity Brand index of most recognised brands for the first time and its income rose significantly
The pros and cons of different umbrella terms
At the heart of this debate about what we should call ourselves is a desire to find a collective noun that encapsulates the many different types of organisations which are included in the sector, and avoids being misleading or, worse still, diminishing their contribution to society.
The often-used umbrella term, ‘Voluntary Sector’ – or ‘Voluntary and Community Sector’ -has an attractive values-driven ring to it when associated with grassroots organisations; however, as already argued, the definition is narrow and those connotations can turn negative when used to describe, say, charities with paid staff, which seek to deliver commissioned health and social care.
‘Third Sector’ has the advantage of encompassing a much broader range of organisations within its definition, including social enterprises, co-operatives, housing associations, global environment campaigners and human rights watchdogs, for example. Its main disadvantage is that it sounds like a name initiated by government, and has the connotation of an ‘also ran’.
‘Civil Society’ is used on the global stage but is less well known as an umbrella term in the UK. It’s a term closely associated with free speech and advocacy. In 2009, the UK Government had a brief flirtation with this umbrella term, renaming its Office of the Third Sector to the Office for Civil Society. Disappointingly, just seven years later the Office for Civil Society was absorbed into the Department for Culture Media and Sport, which effectively put paid to the name ever catching on.
Which leaves the less ambiguous term ‘nonprofits’ or ‘not-for-profits’. By definition, nonprofits or not-for-profits includes any organisation “dedicated to furthering a particular social cause or advocating for a shared point of view. In economic terms, it is an organisation that uses it surplus of the revenues to further achieve its ultimate objective.”
Personally, I like the term nonprofits. It works well in two ways: firstly, it’s a label that defuses the indignation some clients show against charities which are now obliged to make a small charge for services that traditionally were free; secondly, if your organisation bids to deliver public services, the ‘nonprofit’ label sounds professional and yet values-drive. The term on its own may not adequately cover the smallest non-regulated clubs or self-help groups, but expanding the term to ‘Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector’ does.
Why choosing the right sector name matters
In summary, I believe the language we use to describe the sector in which we operate is crucial to the perception we have of ourselves and also the perception others have of our organisations and the people who work in them.
For those of us who care about the future sustainability of the industry, we need once and for all to choose the best sector name and then together stick with it. Let me know what you think.
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I would love to have your feedback on this article and get your thoughts on a sector name. Write to me at email@example.com and let’s continue this conversation.
About the Author – Jenny Hopkins is founder and content curator for The Boiling Frog. She also works as an adviser to small and medium-sized charities, specialising in strategy and business planning. She does voluntary work as a trustee/director for two charities.
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