Would A Sector By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

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December 17, 2018

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Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

The charitable sector. The social sector. The voluntary sector. The civic sector. The nonprofit sector. The not-for-profit sector. The third sector. The independent sector. Civil society. Non-governmental organizations. Nonprofits. Charities. NGOs.

All of these names have been applied to a group of institutions that includes 1.6 million organizations in the United States employing 11.4 million people (or 10% of the workforce -- the third largest behind retail and manufacturing). It is also reported to generate about 10% of the country’s gross national product. Add another 63 million volunteers and you have a formidable economic force.

These organizations are devoted to causes as diverse as education, the environment, the arts, health and human services, food security, wildlife protection, humanitarian relief and research. They exist in virtually every town, and often are considered the bedrocks of their communities. Americans support them in ways unheard of in many parts of the world. In 2016, Americans gave $390 billion to these organizations, an increase of 2.7% from 2015.

Yet, many insiders complain that the sector has little clout in Washington, DC and other halls of power. Representatives from this sector are often not at the table when critical community issues are discussed, and their interests often take a backseat to those of other sectors.

One reason for this disconnect may be the confusion sown by so many names for one group of organizations. While lacking any scientific research on the subject, I suspect that most people have no idea that charities and nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits are essentially the same entities, and the sector compounds the problem by using a variety of names itself.

The main advocacy group for this sector is Independent Sector, a membership organization that brings together a diverse set of charitable organizations, foundations and corporations to advance the common good (Full disclosure: I’m a member of its board of directors). It advocates for public policies that impact the sector, builds knowledge on behalf of the sector, and connects organizations and their leaders to one another. Independent Sector envisions a world of engaged individuals, robust institutions and vibrant communities working together to improve the lives and the natural world, and strengthen democratic societies.

One of its goals is to advance a new narrative about the sector so that the public – as well as the sector’s workers and supporters – have a better understanding of its breath and impact. It’s going to be a tough job.

I’ve spoken to people who work for charitable organizations who don’t really understand that they are linked to a sector that includes hospitals, universities, museums, science centers, soup kitchens, food pantries, parks, homeless shelters and advocacy groups. They tend to know about their own cause or vertical within the sector, but very little about other parts of the sector. Organizations like Independent Sector hope to bring more disparate parts of the sector together for greater dialogue and common purpose.

A good start would be some common agreement on nomenclature. Sometimes in order to advance a cause it’s necessary to identify it and then label it consistently. Personally, I prefer titles like charitable sector or social sector because they describe what the sector is rather than what it is not. Civil society seems too amorphous: shouldn’t all parts of society be civil? And, I don’t like coming in third. But, coming to an agreement on terms is going to take real leadership and commitment from the leaders of the sector.

So, as we close out 2018 and look forward to 2019, one of my hopes is that the charitable/social/independent sector comes together to serve together under one umbrella. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.com

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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