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Language Matters: Measuring what you are vs what you are not

This article authored by Farah Mohamed was originally published by The Hill Times

Organizations operating within the charitable sector, or civil society at large, are commonly labeled as "not-for-profit." While this term intends to emphasize the altruistic mission of these entities, it inadvertently diminishes the significant role charities play in our economy and society. Beyond being a misnomer, this language is out of touch, as individuals seldom identify themselves or others by what they are not. For example, I do not label myself as "not white" because of my brown skin or "not male" because I am a woman. Likewise, I don't categorize myself as "not a fan of soccer" just because I am a tennis enthusiast. I define myself by what I am, not by what I am not, especially if the negation refers to something I am, as is the case with not-for-profit organizations. 


The common perception of not-for-profit (NFP) organizations often conjures images of well-meaning underdogs operating out of ramshackle offices, harried and adorned in tweed. However, this is far from the reality. In Canada, the charitable sector alone comprises over 170,000 organizations, employing 2.5 million people, many of whom are among the brightest minds in the country. From lawyers advocating for equality to doctors providing care in underserved communities, from former politicians running campaigns for food banks or climate change to top fundraisers supporting cancer research or animal welfare. Collectively, it contributes a staggering $198 billion to Canada's GDP, surpassing our mining or manufacturing sectors respectively. This economic impact underscores the profitability of the not-for-profit sector. 


Not-for-profit organizations do aim for profit, it’s just that that profit is social. Instead of counting dollars and cents, we count lives impacted. Our shareholders are the communities we serve. We measure our profit in the amount of refugees helped, the effectiveness of our advocacy on important issues like bail reform, how many breakfasts we served for kids who otherwise would have gone hungry, the amount of people we helped break life-threatening addictions, the houses we built for the homeless, the miles of nature we conserved, the ground-breaking research we funded, and the list goes on and on and on and all of that impact has follow-on benefits for society, because unlike monetary profit, social profit is exponential.   


In a democracy, not-for-profit organizations also take on important advocacy roles, championing the rights of communities and acting as a counterforce to any potential abuses of power. And in a capitalist system, where market forces can sometimes neglect human needs, the not-for-profit sector steps in to fill the gaps, offering support where it is most urgently required. This safety net is not just a comforting concept but a lifeline for countless Canadians facing hardship. Recognizing this multifaceted role underscores the importance of re-evaluating our perception of not-for-profits, appreciating them not just as do-gooders but as essential partners in creating a more just and compassionate society and strong economy.  


It's time to retire the old-fashioned notion of "not-for-profit" and adopt a more accurate perception of the sector, one that acknowledges its economic contributions and the profound impact of its work.