I began talking with a guy in his midforties who ran an investment fund and told me about his latest capital raise. We hit it off while discussing the differences between start-ups on the East and West Coasts, and I enjoyed learning about how he evaluated new investment opportunities. Although I’d left that space a while ago, I still knew it well enough to carry a solid conversation and felt as if we were speaking the same language. Then he asked what I did.
“I run a nonprofit organization called Pencils of Promise.”
“Oh,” he replied, somewhat taken aback. “And you do that full-time?”
More than full-time, I thought, feeling a bit judged. “Yeah, I do. I used to work at Bain, but left to work on the organization full-time.”
“Wow, good for you,” he said in the same tone you’d use to address a small child, then immediately looked over my shoulder for someone new to approach…
On my subway ride home that night I began to reflect on the many times that this scenario had happened since I’d started Pencils of Promise. Conversations began on an equal footing, but the word nonprofit could stop a discussion in its tracks and strip our work of its value and true meaning. That one word could shift the conversational dynamic so that the other person was suddenly speaking down to me. As mad as I was at this guy, it suddenly hit me. I was to blame for his lackluster response. With one word, nonprofit, I had described my company as something that stood in stark opposition to the one metric that his company was being most evluated by. I had used a negative word, non, to detail our work when that inaccurately described what we did. Our primary driver was not the avoidance of profits, but the abundance of social impact…
That night I decided to start using a new phrase that more appropriately labeled the motivation behind our work. By changing the words you use to describe something, you can change how other perceive it. For too long we had allowed society to judge us with shackling expectations that weren’t supportive of scale. I knew that the only way to win the respect of our for-profit peers would be to wed our values and idealism to business acumen. Rather than thinking of ourselves as nonprofit, we would begin to refer to our work as for-purpose.
From The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun.