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Rethinking The Language We Use to Describe What We Do

Rethinking The Language We Use to Describe What We Do


The language we use to talk about Volunteer Engagement is a topic we’ve touched on before in Points of View. We revisit the theme in this issue because earlier this year, author Simon Sinek published a short YouTube video that posed quite a challenge for those of us working in the not-for-profit / nonprofit / voluntary / charitable sector. His challenge was to make a fundamental shift in our vocabulary, and it certainly got us thinking.

So, before you read any further, watch Sinek’s two-minute video here.

As you can see, Sinek covers a lot of territory in just a couple of minutes. In this Points of View, we want to go deeper on some of his points and explore their relevance to Volunteer Engagement professionals. And in our conclusion, we ask for your help in rethinking the language we use to describe what we do.  

The Challenge to Replace ‘Nonprofit’ and ‘Not-for-Profit’

We wholeheartedly agree with Sinek that 'not-for-profit' is a tax status and not an accurate or helpful descriptor of the sector in which many leaders of Volunteer Engagement work. Whatever the equivalent is in your country, not-for-profit status allows organisations certain financial advantages from government to pursue their social purpose. Not-for-profit doesn’t mean such organisations don’t generate income and aren’t profitable; they are still businesses that need to remain solvent, but that isn’t their goal.

As Sinek makes clear, the goal of not-for-profit organisations is the impact they have on the world, the difference they make. It isn’t about generating profit to return to shareholders or owners, nor is it about generating profitable revenue per se. To use his analogy, that’s the fuel that drives the car, not the reason the car exists.

No, the goal of not-for-profit organisations is feeding hungry kids, saving the environment, ending animal abuse, housing the homeless…the list goes on and on and on.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that we endorse the idea of scrapping not-for-profit or nonprofit language and talk instead about using the term ‘For Impact’ to describe our for-impact sector and our for-impact organisations.

Three Main Arguments to Support ‘For Impact’

Focusing on the reasons why we exist instead of focusing on our financial structure (i.e., tax status) leads to some important implications for leaders of Volunteer Engagement. Here are our three main arguments to support rethinking the language we use to describe out work. 

Potential for a better narrative

First, by not focusing on money as the goal, we have much greater potential for a narrative that embraces all forms of support available to for impact organisations.

As we see all too often, the words ‘giving’ and ‘philanthropy’ have become synonymous with financial donations, subjugating other forms of support (including volunteering) as less valued contributions. If, however, the prevailing narrative shifted to one where we recognise and also value the full variety of ways the public can support our organisations – which elevates volunteering to be as valuable as donated cash – then there is a better opportunity for volunteer engagement professionals who don’t have a seat at the strategic decision-making table to get there. 

Benefits of having ‘impact’ as our focus

Second, concentrating on impact forces all of us to rethink what we do and how we do it. And that means no more make work for volunteers, no more keeping the significant work for the paid staff and the less important tasks for volunteers.

If impact is our focus, then we can begin looking with more flexibility at who is best suited to play various roles in our organization, regardless of their pay grade (i.e., staff vs volunteer). If it happens that a volunteer has the right mix of skills, availability and interest to achieve an outcome, why would we not give them that opportunity? Striving for impact doesn’t put employment status at the heart of decision-making; rather, it focuses us on who and what will impact most on our missions, regardless of the pay grade level (for a great article that dives deeper into the idea that volunteers are often a better choice for some roles than employees, read Jayne Cravens article from Energize).  

Striving for impact also eliminates the dangerously false argument around how much we’d be spending if we were to pay volunteers as some kind of measure of their value. Let’s be honest: if volunteers went on strike, or say, a pandemic hit and stopped volunteers from active service with our organisations (sound familiar?), no one set that money aside in the event we can’t engage volunteers. ‘Why’ we involve volunteers has never been about the amount of money saved – it’s always been about impact.

Looking through a for-impact lens forces us to re-evaluate orthodoxies that are holding us back, methods that are perhaps rooted in the old way of doing things pre-pandemic. The world has changed, and we’re never going back, much as we might want to. Too, we’re not going to fundraise our way out of the difficulties we face. A new mindset and a new approach are needed, both oriented to why our organisations exist and not how we fund our missions. And this new perspective gives leaders of Volunteer Engagement some wonderful opportunities.

Defining ourselves by what we do and who we are

Third, Sinek makes the point in his video that nobody wants to be defined by what they’re not. For us, this completely resonates in the Volunteer Engagement profession. We’re fed up with what we do being defined by what we aren’t — we aren’t HR, we aren’t fundraising, we aren’t a proper profession…you get the idea. So much of what we write in these Points of View is done to help all of us to assert our importance as a profession and our vital role in our organisations and wider societies.

Yet, we can take Sinek’s point even further. If we shouldn’t be defined but what we aren’t, perhaps we also shouldn’t be defined by what we are. Instead, maybe we should be defined by why we are? If Sinek’s point is that our sector should be defined by why it exists (for impact), shouldn’t that also apply to Volunteer Engagement Professionals? Indeed, shouldn’t it apply to anyone working in our sector, paid or volunteer?

The ‘Why’ of Volunteer Engagement

So, what’s the ‘why’ of Volunteer Engagement professionals? Why do we exist? What is it that we do that positively impacts on our organisations’ ability to create impact and change the world?

These sound like simple questions, but we suspect the answers could be more challenging.

For example, if we see our core role as the paperwork, systems, process and bureaucracy side of volunteer engagement, what impact does that have? Can we draw a line from our administrative to work to the impact our organisation delivers? Does the administration we oversee turn off more people than it attracts to volunteering, potentially limiting impact because of the talent you never engage? Or is that the goal (e.g., screening out those who may be unsuitable), ensuring increased impact from better quality volunteers?

In contrast, if we see our core role as attracting, enabling and supporting the talent of our community to make the world a better place, to build stronger communities and to inspire active citizenship and community engagement, what does that mean for the work we actually do? Shouldn’t it mean that we spend our time engaging and nurturing people to bring their talents to bear on impacting our community positively? If it does, how does your current workload measure up against such a goal?

Furthermore, if we view our core roles in this alternative way, what opportunities does it open for recruiting talented people into the Volunteer Engagement profession? If we go beyond the ‘smiles and clipboard’ approach to one that is more impactful in changing lives, would we attract and retain more talent that we already do?

Conclusion: Let’s Hear from You

To conclude, we’d like to pose a few questions for you to answer and discuss.

  • Why do you think the Volunteer Engagement role exist?
  • If your role didn’t exist, what aspects of your organisation’s impact would be missing or weakened?
  • If your organisation thought about itself as being ‘for impact,’ what opportunities might that present for you in your work?

Please leave your thoughts and responses in a comment below. Let’s get this conversation started!

To add or view comments

Thu, 07/15/2021

Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Erin and Rob! Great insights, as usual. 

Your article brought me back to one of the big a-ha moments in my research on volunteer impact, when I realized how often we omit the why or purpose behind volunteerism. It may seem like a small thing, but the consequence is profound. Just as we should be operating to achieve some impact, we should be partnering with volunteers to achieve some impact (rather than just getting more people to volunteer than last year...unless, of course, that's your purpose). Putting the why front and center helps guide our practices and the selection of indicators of success. Without purpose at the forefront, we can spend all our time on recruitment and overlook retention. Or it becomes easy to end up counting volunteers and hours and calling it a day rather than linking the results of all those volunteer hours to the results of the organization. Aligning volunteer purpose with org purpose re-integrates our efforts and keeps the volunteer function from being a sweet, but anemic activity on the margins of the organization.    

You noted that we are not going to fundraise our way out of the difficulties we face. So true. So many of the "wicked problems" we face require more than programs. They require a change of heart and often a re-humanizing of our neighbors. They require all of us to own some part of the challenges our community faces. That's a tall order considering how many of us need a trip to the gym for our civic engagement muscles. Volunteering can be that place where we (re)learn how to use those muscles though. Where we learn about issues and what we can uniquely do to contribute. Volunteering traditionally has not a place where we can identify and challenge our assumptions or look at how we might contribute to those wicked problems. That could be a powerful addition to the volunteer experience though. I agree that there is a ripeness and need to rethink how we define and operate as leaders of volunteers.

The language is important. And it seems to be just one part of a re-orientation of the work of leaders of volunteers. We may have to shed some of the niceness that seems to be the hallmark of service. (Rob, I think you encouraged us to stop "being so bloody nice" some years back.) Instead, we might have to dig deep to draw on courage, fierceness, and advocacy as part of our toolkits (how radical).  

Thu, 07/15/2021

Not at all crazy about "for impact." It doesn't fit so many nonprofit (yup, I said it) organizations - a historical society doesn't sound like a "for impact" organization. "For impact" sounds so "corporate". Ugh. 

I have been using the phrases mission-based organizations and cause-based organizations for a long while now, to distinguish the sector from the for-profit sector. Also, the for-profit sector is most certainly "for impact" - they exist to have an impact on markets, our pocketbooks, our spending, etc. Mission-based organizations, cause-based organizations, exist to fulfill a cause or a mission: promoting history, promoting dance, saving adoptable dogs and cats, promoting green spaces, etc. It also immediately shows it's contrast to the corproate sector, the "for-profit" sector. 

Using the phrase "mIssion-based" or or "cause-based" makes it so much easier for me, as someone who creates roles for volunteers and manages and supports those volunteers, to set the boundary on what those volunteers should and shouldn't be doing, especially when I'm pressured to do something with volunteers by the board or corporate donors - it's so much easier to defend the boundaries with "let's talk about our cause and how everything we do needs to be based in that cause" than anything else I've tried when I get asked for the organization's volunteers to do something that is so, so outside the scope of what we're trying to do but a corporate donor decided "it will be fun!" 

So, sorry, but I'll pass. I'm sticking with mission-based and cause-based organizations. It seems to get the message across very well, and also allows me to include community-focused government initiatives in the "big tent" as well. 

Sun, 07/18/2021

Cannot answer for other nonprofit (not-for-profit) organizations, but as our organization is an ALL volunteer (no one gets paid a salary) we encounter problems in finding qualified volunteers and those willing to commit for at least 1 year in a specific volunteer role.  Except for our volunteer CEO, the other volunteer roles are "virtual"  since the volunteer roles are set up where the volunteer can work from home since we primarily interact with our client via phone and email.  Finding someone who is willing to volunteer for a few hours to help with a specific event is not an issue. 

Seems the younger generation is only interested in volunteering for a few hours on an annual basis. 

Guardian Angels for Soldier's Pet is a "military and veteran" support organization where one of their programs which is available in all 50 states, so we communicate with our  clients using military and veteran terms.  Our 2 other programs are being developed to be available in the state of TX for those service members stationed at TX military bases and for our veterans who are residents of TX.  Based on who our clients are we do not see a need to change wording as described in your article. 

Our primary goal is to ensure every companion animal we are able to foster via our Pet Foster Home program is one less animal in an animal shelter  or animal rescue organization. 

Currently we have 13 volunteers including our Board of Directors & Officers.  The hardest part for us currently is majority of our volunteers including our CEO wear multiple hats to ensure all work required and the various roles are covered until we have a volunteer. 

Please note what we do, we have been doing since January 2005 and as long as there is a veteran or a single or dual military service with a beloved furbaby deploying out of country, we we do will be needed. 

Respectfully, Linda Spurlin-Dominik, CEO Guardian Angels for Soldier's Pet