The iSector: Are you in?

Non-profit organization - word cloud illustrationDepending on where you live, you may call them non-profits, not-for-profits, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations educate kids, fight for justice, feed the hungry, house the homeless, eradicate poverty, protect our planet, fuel the arts, nurture our spirits, find cures for cancer and generally do everything in their power to make our world a better place. And yet, we define them by what they are not.

If you look at the Latin root of the word profit, it means either ‘progress’ or ‘advance’.  At what point did we decide it was okay to be defined as the ‘non-progress’ sector when the whole point of what we do is to make progress?!

And there’s more: the term ‘non-profit’ refers to donor profit, not organizational profit. It is about the individual impact on the person making the gift, i.e. the donor is foregoing personal profit by giving money to a charitable, tax-exempt organization.

At what point did we transfer a reference to impact on individual tax returns and bank accounts to the impact of the sector?

At what point did we confuse one individual foregoing personal benefit with millions of organizations creating community benefit? At what point did we decide it was okay to define ourselves by an erroneous and unrelated marker—profit—instead of by what we are?

What’s in a name?
If individual organizations were to name themselves by the opposite of their intent—e.g. Divided Way, Badwill Industries, Nature Destroyer—we’d think they were crazy.  Yet we refer to an entire sector by the opposite of its intent.

If the sector shouldn’t be named for what it’s not doing and/or for an erroneous reference to individuals deciding to ‘not profit’ from a donation, what should it be named?

As with all else, it should have a name that reflects what makes it truly unique, by what distinguishes it, by what piece of mental real estate it will occupy in people’s brains, by its most compelling attributes.

In this case, we should name it: the iSector.

The iSector’s Five ‘I’s

Why the iSector? The ‘i’ captures its essence and most compelling characteristics, all of which start with an ‘i’.

With its intrepid spirit, the iSector inspires innovation and investment that leads to impact.

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

INTREPID: Honestly, if you look at what the iSector takes on—poverty, sustainability, education, homelessness, health care, arts, athletics, Alzheimer’s, malaria, and polio just to  name a few—it boggles the mind. Only those with “resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance” would go there. It is the intrepid spirit of those drawn to the sector that sparks and sustains the work.

INSPIRES:  The volunteer who patiently teaches a six year old to read inspires.  The donor who believes cancer can be conquered inspires.  The board that enthusiastically launches an audacious capital campaign inspires. The organization that believes art is a right not a privilege inspires. The foundation that believes we can eradicate malaria inspires. And it goes without saying, but is worth saying anyway, that this work is inspired by individuals who deserve equal access to a better life, a better future, a better world.

To be clear, I’m not saying the iSector is all rainbows, flowers and unicorns. Solving intractable problems is tough and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we get it flat out wrong. However, this contributes to the sector’s inspirational nature—there are rarely easy answers, straight-forward solutions or obvious wins. And yet we are undeterred. That’s inspiring.

INNOVATION: This word gets tossed around a lot, so much so that it has almost lost its meaning. The technical definition is “the introduction of something new”. That doesn’t quite seem to do it justice, particularly when you look at it in the context of the iSector where innovation has as much to do with adaptation and experimentation, as creation.  Regardless, “Nobody innovates when they’re fat and sassy, “ as Kenneth Foster, Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put it. And although the iSector might have a little sass, there’s nothing fat about it. Resting on your laurels isn’t acceptable. And so, we innovate. Not on occasion but all the time. It is part of our rhythm. A daily occurrence, rather than a rare occasion. It may not always look or feel innovative in the moment, but when you add it up, it most definitely is. We innovate with purpose whether on purpose or not. That purpose is to create greater impact.

INVESTMENT: To fuel inspiration and innovation that leads to impact, we must invest in organizations and individuals. The organizations need the resources to not just do the work, but to do it well. The iSector—and those who benefit from the work—need the very best that we have to offer, not the bare minimum. Investments of money, time, capital, commitment, passion, energy, connections—this is what we need to do what we need to do.

IMPACT: When you take the intrepid spirit and couple it with the inspiration, innovation and investment, you get impact. Impact that is felt by individuals, organizations, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, countries, and continents. Across oceans and Internet connections. Much of it you can quantify. Some of it you can’t. However you measure it, the iSector’s impact is undeniable. Is it enough? No. Can we do more? Yes. (This is where you come in.)

The iSector has nothing to do with tax status. It’s not about whether you work for a 501c3, an LLC, or a publicly traded company. It is about a mindset. It is about admitting that how we have been doing things has gotten us far, but not far enough. It is about taking a risk. It is about taking a stand, a stand that says: Now is the time to do more, even if we have to do it with less. Now is the time to take everything we’ve got and apply it in ways that we never thought possible. Now is the time to take our intrepid spirits and inspire innovation and investment that leads to impact—huge, unprecedented, unimaginable impact.

The iSector already exists. The question is: are you part of it?

[Shout-outs: Unlike most of my posts, this one was awhile in the making and has a special place in my heart. I wanted the following people to know how much I appreciate their passion, smarts and support.  (alpha by first name) Alison Carl White, Carrie Zanger, Dana Robinson Slote, Dana Van Nest, Erin Hertel, Gloria Jordan, Heather Hill, Lenora Edwards, Lindsay Bealko,  Peg Giffels, Peter Drury, Scott Allard, Shanon Doolitte, Susan Howlett, and Zan McColloch-Lussier.]

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  1. Thank you, Erica, for an inspiring and challenging post — when DID we forget all this? Through purposeful progress, we all profit in many, many ways, both measurable and intangible.

    We’re in 110%!

  2. Beth Ann Locke says:

    This is a great post that can give fundraising professionals pause to collect themselves and examine how they are addressing the five I words as presented here. Have we slipped in our pursuit of “doing good” by getting bogged down in daily grind (or “fires”) that often turn our heads away from any of these attributes.

    For me, this is a great call to post this list on my wall and ask myself, how will I hone my change-skills this week? Which of these will I sharpen, to ensure I am making real impact?

    I’m in, Erica!

    • Such an interesting question about whether we’ve “slipped in our pursuit of doing good”. Not sure we’ve slipped so much as not given ourselves license to unleash the full force and potential of the sector because of how we have positioned ourselves–i.e. by what we are not. It’s tough to feel awesome when you’re focused on everything you’re lacking. : )

      Glad to have you on board!!

  3. Lindsay Bealko says:

    Thanks for the reminder and call to positivity, perseverence and progress, Erica! I am finding myself really liking the idea of the iSector circling on the last I word – Impact. All 5 words definitely help define the sector, but Impact is what it’s all about at the end of the day! You use your intrepid spirit, innovation, and investment to inspire others and create impact. And if there is no impact, then what is it all for? I also like it because I think we as a sector understand the opportunity we have to show impact in new and different ways, to share stories, be transparent, to measure and communicate our results in ways we may not have thought possible even 5 years ago. I like to call this our “So what?” and I believe you like to call it our “So that”. Either way, it’s about driving community outcomes and impact, and that’s something we can (and should) all rally behind! Thanks for the post!

    • ‘So what’ and ‘So that’ both get to the WHY behind the work. What, Who, and How all matter as well but, as Simon Sinek so artfully explained, we’ve got to start with WHY. And then stay focused on it.

      Thanks for underscoring that this is about the WHY, Lindsay!

  4. Elizabeth C. says:

    Erica, thanks for sparking some much-needed conversation on this topic! The name of our sector has irked me since my first “nonprofit” job years ago. While I love the idea of the five i-words, and while they’re all totally true (or at least, we aspire to that), iSector sounds follows the Apple gadget naming trend too much for me. 😉

    I’ve gnashed my teeth over other names (third sector, independent sector, common good sector, etc.) that I’ve decided to give up trying to wordsmith it and instead focus my time on the work itself. But I’m glad there are smart people like you to keep drilling into what we call ourselves so we don’t lose sight of who we’re supposed to be.

    • Elizabeth–You raise great points! I wrestled with ‘i’ being trendy and it also being misconstrued as ‘all about me!’. Here’s where I eventually landed: My belief is that the iSector will outlast even the trendiest of gadgets and have greater impact. My hope is that people will begin to think through what the ‘i’ means to them. So, it might still be self-referential but in a different way, i.e. “How can I contribute to inspiring innovation and/or investments that leads to impact?”

      Regardless of what we call it, I’m so glad we have people like you focusing on the work of the sector!

      Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts and for being honest about your concerns. Really appreciate it.

  5. Thanks Erica for the reminder of how the name of our sector shapes our thinking in sometimes unseen, and in this case negative, ways. As my 7-year-old daughter would say, “Awkward!”

    I’m with Beth Ann and Lindsay about the importance of somehow keeping an eye on impact or the “so what.” Ultimately, impact is what we’re all about – feeding kids, housing families, creating inspiring art and theater, cleaning up our parks and preserving our wilderness… It’s obvious but not so simple to do in the day to day. Sometimes I’m just looking for the fastest way to get something done, or doing things the same way as last time because it’s known and well, comfortable. If I were reflecting on the big picture of impact I might make other choices, because the why supercedes the how. Hard work, but I believe it’s what is called for in these times.

    I’m going to walk around for the next few days inserting “iSector” in my head every time I hear or say “nonprofit” to see how that helps. If I can stay focused for that long, I’ll let you know how it goes!

    • I can’t wait to hear how your experiment in eliminating “nonprofit” goes! I adopted this approach about two weeks ago and it has brought a whole new level of intentionality to my word choice. (And it’s been hard!!!)

      And I totally hear you on doing what’s easy and comfortable. Letting go of what’s comfortable isn’t easy. But being part of of the “non-progress” sector isn’t easy either, right? As you say, it’s awkward. : )

  6. Sunny Yi-Han Lin says:

    Erica – Really love the idea of iSector! Are you accepting membership now? Would love to know how to be part of the iSector. Thank you! 🙂

    • If you wrote this comment, you’re already part of the iSector! It’s a mentality, a mindset, an approach, an outlook. Can’t wait to see what great things you do!

  7. Another negative framing I’ve heard is nonprofits do the work that capitalism doesn’t have structures for but which humanity still needs to get done. That’s what interests me about benefit corporations: can we make our traditional business structures expand to include social benefit.

    Being a language geek, I like the fact that “economy” comes from the Greek “oikos” which in ancient times simply meant “household”: a group of human beings figuring out how to live together well. Our structures should serve how we want to live, not the reverse. Too bad “utopian” seems to be derogatory…. what’s up with that?

    Go, Erica!

    • The B-Corps and burgeoning social benefit corps are definitely interesting to consider vis-a-vis the five ‘i’s of the iSector. In theory, being able to do good while doing well is easy. In practice, not so much, as you point out.

      If we could go back to the ancient definition of the word ‘economy’, we’d be in good shape. And might not need all the structures. Thanks for the great history lesson and insights, Christine!

  8. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post Erica. I concur with many above about the path in which the five ‘I’s seem to take place. You already know I resonate with investment, so here goes… : )

    Internally to an organization, investment means solid IT equipment, tools and protocols to ensure staff can do their jobs most efficiently. I get that often the hurdle comes down to simply not being able to afford the right infrastructure. While technology changes constantly, I do believe having the mindset of focusing on what an organization critically NEEDS for operating, then creating a plan and a budget for how to get there. Rather than inheriting something for free that might be a total hassle to maintain and use. (Things like: a website CMS, office-wide server access, time tracking & HR administrative systems, etc.) Also, there is friction between taking the time to plan for investment & the pure passion and sometimes urgency of an organization moving their mission forward. Could these decisions around investment also be based in fear of losing operational funds given our economy the last 5 years? Yeah, probably. But it still remains that investment in people and infrastructure is absolutely critical for efficiency and success.

    Onto grants. I am currently reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs and am reminded of the simple fact her writing was funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1958. Her tireless passion for changing how cities operate takes on the five ‘I’s: intrepid spirit/passion for her ties to urban communities, inspiring writing that other urban planners have gone on to implement, innovation for the intricacies she understood about civil engineering, and investment. None of her writing would have been possible without the assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation. Jane Jacobs is just one example of a visionary who changed our world for the better.

    Lastly, I am humbled to have been able to part of your thought process in this post. It’s encouraging to see so much conversation happening! Onward!

    • Give me an ‘i’ for ‘investment’! Love that this ‘i’ spoke to you and thank you for sharing why. Without investment, our impact is hampered, hindered and mitigated. In a time when it seems like we’ll have less investment in making the world a better place, this is particularly poignant. And troubling.

      Onward, indeed!

  9. Totally in!

  10. Great post Erica! This is exactly the type of forward and positive-thinking that we need in our sector, especially at this time. Thank you, as usual, for inspiring and whipping us into a “we’re proud to be here” sort of frenzy!

  11. Brilliant branding & naming & cause – I want to be part of it :)))

  12. Justin Ware says:

    Very much so in! And I agree completely that this is about more than 501c3 work …it should extend to politics, environment, education (which I guess are often 501c3 orgs… 🙂


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