Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

A nonprofit by any other name?

with 3 comments

Nonprofits themselves, in various forms, are centuries old, but the term “nonprofit” is a relatively young one. As a nonprofit professional, I’ve been drawn into many conversations about the need to change the name of the sector. What other sector—or industry, or business, or brand—defines itself in a negative, especially a misleading negative? (For those of you playing along at home, nonprofits are legally permitted to have surplus revenue—profit—just not to distribute it to shareholders, as for-profits do.)
Many of my colleagues in the sector shun the popular alternative, “charity,” as soft, conjuring up images of kind-hearted handouts and bake sales. Today’s professionals know better—nonprofits are vital social safety nets, systems unto themselves in their communities. But do journalists and news audiences share this vocabulary preference?
As a news consumer, I read “charity” as warm and fuzzy, but not serious, and “nonprofit” as serious, but clinical and dry. So I had a hypothesis: news stories that used the term “charity” in the headline or body, instead of “nonprofit,” would cover mostly fundraising events and features on the work of specific organizations. Stories using “nonprofit,” meanwhile, would have a greater range of topics, including the impact of the economy on specific organizations or sub-sectors,
Had I more time, a research stipend, and an assistant or two, I’d launch into a full-blown content analysis of news coverage of the nonprofit sector to find out what the real differences are between “charity” and “nonprofit” stories. For now, here’s a taste.
My method was straightforward: I did a Google News search for “nonprofit” and another for “charity” around 9 AM this morning. I logged the first 10 hits from each search, assigning them topic tags (such as “fundraising” and “profile”) to describe their angles. As it turned out, the results weren’t too different from each other.
“Charity” news stories (returned about 45,000 results)
Bupa Launches its 2009 International Charity Challenge to Help a Rural Community (press release, fundraising) http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS146613+11-Sep-2009+PRN20090911
UCLA surgeon sued for benefiting from his own charity (wrongdoing; “nonprofit” x1) http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ucla-professor10-2009sep10,0,5587956.story
Donations Needed for Children’s Charity Brainwave (press release, fundraising) http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS129332+11-Sep-2009+BW20090911
Twitter users network to raise funds for charities (fundraising, event) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/webguide/internetlife/2009-09-09-twestival_N.htm
$500K artwork given to charity returning to owner (fundraising) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hF6uCaStVMQbG1mbpamzRiLxsVKAD9AKNPP00
Sweet Charity: Sharon Stone, a Sizzling Do-gooder (celebrity, event; “nonprofit” x1) http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-200909091653tmslizsmittr–x-a20090910sep10,0,5685315.story
Thefts jeopardize ride for charity (local crime with a nonprofit thread) http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/09/11/thefts_jeopardize_ride_for_charity/
Susan G. Komen for the Cure Receives Charity Navigator’s Coveted Four-Star Rating for Third Year in a Row (accountability, press release, recognition; “nonprofit” x1) http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS144689+10-Sep-2009+BW20090910
Dallas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Chad Willis to Host Invitation-Only Celebrity Charity Event at His Downtown Dallas Restaurant AMPM (celebrity, event, press release; “nonprofit” x1) http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS222693+10-Sep-2009+BW20090910
4 press releases
4 fundraising
4 event
3 celebrity
“Nonprofit” news stories (returned about 40,000 results)
Tarzana nonprofit paid too much rent, audit finds (wrongdoing) http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-tarzana11-2009sep11,0,5809672.story
Communities In Schools Is Among the Most Accountable Nonprofits in the Country (press release; accountability; uses “charity” x1 aside from references to Charity Navigator) http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS181658+10-Sep-2009+PRN20090910
WDBO Local News Orlando nonprofit runs out of hope (economy) http://wdbo.com/localnews/2009/09/orlando-nonprofit-runs-out-of.html
CareFirst Replies to City’s Bid For Funds (wrongdoing, controversy) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/10/AR2009091004145.html?hpid=sec-health
Miami-Dade nonprofit provides support for children of HIV/AIDS victims (profile) http://www.miamiherald.com/news/miami-dade/beaches/story/1228005.html
Nonprofit roundup for Sept. 11, 2009 (roundup) http://www.philanthropyjournal.org/news/nonprofit-roundup-sept-11-2009
Microsoft helps found, fund open-source nonprofit (profile) http://blog.seattlepi.com/microsoft/archives/178835.asp?from=blog_last3
Destiny Foundation suspends operations (economy; “charity” x1) http://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/stories/2009/09/07/daily38.html
Slow economy sparks nonprofit collaborations (economy) http://albuquerque.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/stories/2009/09/14/story5.html?b=1252900800^2076601
3 economy
2 profile
2 wrongdoing
1 press release
In general, the charity search returned more press releases, fundraising, and celebrity stories. The nonprofit search returned more economic impact stories, profiles, and wrongdoing stories. This was in line with my hypothesis, if only in a quick ‘n’ dirty initial search.
I also did a word search on each story to see whether the choice of words is dictated by the thesaurus; whether “charity and “nonprofit” are used interchangeably, that is. On the other hand, journalistic writing style may influence this word choice. But whatever the reason, I found that stories that came up in one search largely did not include the term from the other. Only a few charity stories used the word “nonprofit” even once.
So stories are consistent about which terms they use to describe our sector. But is this enough? Neither term describes our work accurately and meaningfully. What name, if any can accomplish this? Or is the name of the sector small peanuts next to our contributions to society?
And who will volunteer to crunch the numbers in a major content analysis? Come on, you nonprofit management PhD candidates, you know you want to…

Nonprofits themselves, in various forms, are centuries old, but the term “nonprofit” is relatively young. As a nonprofit professional, I’ve been drawn into countless conversations about the controversial name of the sector. What other sector—or industry, business, or brand—defines itself in a negative, especially a misleading negative? (For those of you playing along at home, nonprofits are legally permitted to have surplus revenue—profit—just not to distribute it to shareholders, as for-profits do.)

Many of my nonprofit colleagues shun the popular alternative, “charity,” as conjuring up images of kind-hearted handouts and bake sales. Today’s professionals know better—nonprofits are vital social safety nets, systems unto themselves in their communities. However, it’s not a given that journalists and news audiences share this vocabulary preference.

An excellent December 2008 post from the Nonprofit Tech Blog discusses online search trends for the two terms, with some surprising results. But aside from disasters, what topics are most commonly associated with each one?

As a news consumer,  I had a hypothesis:

1. News stories that used the term “charity” in the headline or body, instead of “nonprofit,” will cover mostly fundraising events and features on the work of specific organizations, and more local stories in general. It might also return more stories from the UK, where “charity” is more common.

2. Stories using “nonprofit,” meanwhile, will have a greater range of topics, including the impact of the economy on specific organizations or sub-sectors, include national coverage, and be exclusively within the US.

Had I more time, a research stipend, and an assistant or two, I’d launch a full-blown content analysis of news coverage of the nonprofit sector to suss out the real differences between “charity” and “nonprofit” stories. But having none, I opted for my old standby: Google.

My method was straightforward: I did a Google News search for “nonprofit” and another for “charity” around 9 AM Pacific this morning. I recorded the first 10 hits from each search, assigning them topic tags (such as “fundraising” and “profile”) to describe their angles. As it turned out, the results weren’t too different from each other.

“Charity” news stories (in order returned by Google, as part of about 45,000 results)

Bupa Launches its 2009 International Charity Challenge to Help a Rural Community (press release; fundraising;)
UCLA surgeon sued for benefiting from his own charity (local; wrongdoing)
Donations Needed for Children’s Charity Brainwave (press release; fundraising)
Eva Longoria: Charity Chick (national; celebrity, event)
Twitter users network to raise funds for charities (national; fundraising, event)
$500K artwork given to charity returning to owner (local; fundraising)
Sweet Charity: Sharon Stone, a Sizzling Do-gooder (local; celebrity, event)
Thefts jeopardize ride for charity (local; crime with a nonprofit angle)
Susan G. Komen for the Cure Receives Charity Navigator’s Coveted Four-Star Rating for Third Year in a Row (press release; accountability)
Dallas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Chad Willis to Host Invitation-Only Celebrity Charity Event at His Downtown Dallas Restaurant AMPM (press release; celebrity, event)

Topic tag totals:

  • Press release- 4
  • Fundraising- 4
  • Event- 4
  • Celebrity- 3

“Nonprofit” news stories (in order returned by Google, as part of about 40,000 results)

Tarzana nonprofit paid too much rent, audit finds (local; wrongdoing)
Nonprofits will join Nutter to mark 9/11 (local; event, volunteering)
Communities In Schools Is Among the Most Accountable Nonprofits in the Country (press release; accountability)
WDBO Local News Orlando nonprofit runs out of hope (local; economy)
CareFirst Replies to City’s Bid For Funds (local; wrongdoing)
Miami-Dade nonprofit provides support for children of HIV/AIDS victims (local; profile)
Nonprofit roundup for Sept. 11, 2009 (national; roundup)
Microsoft helps found, fund open-source nonprofit (local; profile)
Destiny Foundation suspends operations (local; economy)
Slow economy sparks nonprofit collaborations (local; economy)

Topic tag totals:

  • Economy- 3
  • Profile- 2
  • Wrongdoing- 2
  • Press release- 1

In general, the charity search returned more press releases, fundraising, and celebrity stories. The nonprofit search returned more economic impact stories, profiles, and wrongdoing stories. This was in line with my hypothesis, if only in a quick ‘n’ dirty initial search.

However, only US stories appeared in either search (possibly a function of Google knowing my geographical preferences). And local stories far outnumbered national ones in both categories. (I excluded press releases when screening for geography.)

I also did a word search on each story to see whether vocabulary is dictated by the thesaurus–whether “charity and “nonprofit” are used interchangeably. On the other hand, journalistic writing style may influence this word choice. But whatever the reason, very few stories from one search t included the term from the other.

So stories are consistent about which terms they use to describe our sector. But is this enough? Neither term describes our work accurately and meaningfully. What name, if any can accomplish this? Or is the name of the sector small peanuts next to our contributions to society?

And who will volunteer to crunch the numbers in a major content analysis? Come on, nonprofit management PhD candidates, you know you want to…

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Written by eclawson

September 11, 2009 at 3:42 PM

3 Responses

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  1. I believe we should use both terms to identify 2 different sectors of our business. CHarity would refer to any organization designed specifically to help people in the bottom half of the median income. Non profit would be used for everything from insurance companies to student loan scam artists to museums to symphonies to any other organization designed to not distribute profits to shareholders but rather to “benefit” the community.

    That way, those of us in the business of raising money to help the poor (get access to justice in my case) would not have to cringe everytime some thief gets caught running a so called non profit student loan corporation as a personal benefit corporation.

    But I digress.

    Sam Prince

    September 17, 2009 at 12:18 PM

  2. Actually, I much prefer the term “not-for-profit” because it expresses the true intent and purpose of the sector.

    Ken Gabel

    September 18, 2009 at 7:30 AM

  3. […] and let the public know what we’re really about, not rely on the media and others to paint an inaccurate picture of […]


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