Honey is really bee vomit: Why we should label “NonProfit” Organizations “For-Purpose” Organizations

by cv harquail on March 28, 2008


“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Would this advice make any sense if, instead, it was:

“You catch more flies with bee vomit than vinegar”?

honey bee

Heck no. That’s why it makes a difference when organizations have positive, attractive, and descriptive names.

Names matter

Names convey identity. They can be crafted to emphasize one particular organizational quality or another, and they can highlight the positive or the negative. Because a name can reflect any facet of the organization, it matters what part of an organization’s identity its name conveys.

That’s why, while thinking about problems related to putting brand names on nonprofit organizations, I was once again annoyed by the label we use to mark this category of organizations. We use a negative label – they are not -for-profit – that tells us not what these organizations are, but what they are not. This whole category of marvelous organizations, dedicated to doing good things, is given a label that describes them as being somehow deficient.


Negative or Positive?

The nonprofit label also describes this whole type of organization as an exception to the norm of organizations, rather than a form of organizations that is sui generis. By labeling them nonprofits, we treat for-profit, moneymaking organizations as the universal standard, the normal, the desirable. By comparison, both literally and figuratively, nonprofit organizations are labeled as though they don’t even merit a category of their own.

Subordinate or of Equal Value?

In critical literary theory, the subtype of a larger more prominent category is called the “marked” category. Marked categories require an extra adjective to explain their place within the larger category. Marked categories require modification because they somehow don’t live up to the universal label. Common marked categories are female doctor, African American, male dancer, hybrid car, and so on. By marking a category of organizations as nonprofit, we are saying semantically that the whole lot of them is abnormal!

Critical literary theory also reminds us that where terms are paired together, the pairing is usually hierarchical. The universal category is more important and more valuable than the marked category. Therefore, a nonprofit is not only missing something (a profit orientation)and also abnormal, it is even not quite as good as a for-profit organization.

Well, I’ve decided that I’m tired of all of these important, noble, necessary organizations being labeled as though they are missing something critical. And, rather than complaining about it, I’m proposing a solution:

Let’s call these organizations “for-purpose” organizations.

After all, what is really important to distinguishing these organizations, the idea that they are not about money, or the idea that they are about their mission?

Focus on what these organizations are, not what they aren’t.

“For-purpose organizations” can exist alongside “for-profit organizations”, using symmetrical category labels rather than dominant and subordinate labels. We can take a tip from “pro-life” and “pro-choice activist” (a.k.a. anti-choice and anti-life activists, respectively) and label both types of organizations by what is most important to them: purpose or profit. Both types then have labels that are accurate and positive.

Calling one category of organizations “for-purpose organizations” doesn’t mean that “for-profit organizations” don’t have a purpose. Many for-profit organizations do have a purpose in addition to making money, and many are admirable because of the fervor with which they pursue their non-financial purpose. But when it’s all said and done, “success” or “failure” for these organizations always comes down to the bottom line.

Organizational scholars and activists can talk for as long as we want about the “balanced scorecard ” or the “double or triple bottom line ” approachs to accounting for a for-profit organization’s success or failure, but none of these evaluation strategies does away with or even puts as secondary the pursuit of profits.

What really matters?

There is an intriguing article in the New York Times that talks about the effect of announcing a ‘green strategy’ – a non-financial purpose – on a for-profit organization’s stock price. Research by Karin Thorburn and Karen Fisher-Vanden of the Tuck Graduate School of Business has shown how, when an organization announces that they have made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its stock price goes down. Not only that, but the more aggressive the goal, the larger the drop in stock price. The stock price goes down because the market is reacting to a concern that if an organization commits to pursuing a (non-financial) purpose, its profits will suffer. Even if this reaction is short-term and short sighted, it demonstrates that investors emphasize the financial goals of for-profit organizations, regardless of how noble the for-profit organizations’ other purposes might be.

For-purpose organizations, for their part, can’t be evaluated on whether or not they achieve their ultimate goals, because their goals are usually too complex, too intractable, and too universal to be achieved by one organization. It can be hard to show discernible progress every 13 weeks, when you are fighting global warming, ending sex slavery, or eliminating hunger. Instead, for-profit organizations can be evaluated by how hard they are trying, by where they are making a difference, by small wins rather than windfalls, by the motivation of their members, by the gratitude of their stakeholders, and by their authenticity.

If we get more flies with honey than with vinegar, we’re going to get more respect with the label “for-purpose” rather than “nonprofit”.

Some people will argue that honey can be more accurately described as bee “regurgitation”. Regurgitation is a nicer name, but it’s still gross not exactly positive. Let’s label it the way we want to see it – – honey is honey, simple and sweet.

This advice also applies to how we label organizations. Let’s change how we think of organizations that focus on things other than money.

These organizations aren’t against money, they are for a purpose.

For-purpose organizations don’t ignore the value of money; instead, they focus on something ultimately more important.


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