for-purpose instead of non-profit

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.

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1 comment

  1. You should not let that stuff bother you. That dude does nothing of any interest or value, and so when it comes to talking about interesting work, they’ve got nothing to talk about outside of how much money they make. They make nothing else.

    I like the thought of “for-purpose”, but I also think that the term fails to address the problem. Profit driven corporations (especial those in the financial sector or involved with the buying and selling of other enterprises) also have a purpose, but the purpose has nothing to do with making or doing anything of public benefit. The purpose of a “for-profit” like these is merely to extract as much value out of a system/market as possible into private hands. Its interesting that sole proprietorships and worker controlled and operated enterprises are not as limited in this way even when they are for-profit enterprises. These are clearly better structures for an enterprise with a mission rooted in the real economy. The profit motive doesn’t have to get in the way of producing something of real value. All you need is enough to operate. There’s no capitalist/outside shareholder to please who typically has no actual interest in what the enterprise really does outside of return on investment. Anyway.. its not just non-profits which can avoid the all consuming and consumptive coercion of the profit motive which is inherent in the structure of a capitalist system, chichis ultimately reduced to treating enterprises as assets to be traded.

    All the said, semantics aside, I applaud you for finding a way to do something with your work.

    And thanks for the code snippets on your site which brought me here.