For Impact


Imagining a day in which “Not-for-profits” don’t exist

For Impact Ideas, On Change in the Social Sector | | Nick Fellers

Tom’s been pushing for a ‘change’ in the sector and a change in the vocabulary for 15+ years. In the past five years we’ve seen the dialogue about a new language explode. And, recently I’ve been able to imagine a day in which ‘not-for-profits’ don’t exist because a different identity shapes those devoted to changing the world.

We give a big portion of our time and resources to helping young leaders change the world. Tom’s been the boxing coach at Notre Dame for 35+ years and I built and sold my first company (at Notre Dame) before I was 22. We’re sold out for young people.

Thinking back over the past two years we’ve had young social entrepreneurs to our boot camps, mentored at the Unreasonable Institute and worked closely with another 26 young leaders at Eagle Creek or on-the-road. Not one of them would describe what he or she is doing as a ‘not-for-profit’. When you listen to them describe their ambitions the message is about

  • Social Innovation
  • Social Enterprise
  • Movements / Networks
  • Change-Focused Organization
  • For Impact (after they’ve been with us)

The really interesting thing is that I think greater than 80% have been incorporated as 501c3 organizations.

This is not an observation about vocabulary. It’s an observation about identity and being.

When you talk to these founders and change makers they are choosing (and more often defaulting toward) a different identity.

Were those that started or contributed toward not-for-profit-efforts 30 years ago not social innovators? Of course they were social innovators. But, the default identity and story was different. It was one about ‘resources’. It was about doing good with less. It was about ‘choosing not to work for the man [and $$] in order to devote your life to others’.

Only ten years ago my partners and I sold our tech company during the height of the dot-com era. When I told everyone I wanted to work in the non-profit-sector my peers and mentors asked me if I was sure I wanted to ‘give up everything’… they then patted me on the back, gave half a smile and said, “Good for you.”

The old ‘not-for-profit’ story was about volunteering to take less in life to help others. It was about lifestyle and resources. Today’s conversations are about intent.

  • They’re about AMBITION
  • They’re about PURPOSE.
  • They’re about LEVERAGE.
  • They’re about CHANGE.
  • They’re about ENDLESS IMAGINATION.
  • They’re about IMPACT.

“You become what you think about.” – Earl Nightingale
“You ARE your story.” – Jim Loehr

Because these new leaders (in age and/or perspective) see themselves as different, they are different. They’re bringing a new message, a new brand and a new voice.

They excite me because of their youthful energy but also because an entire generation is For Impact – not just some vocal fractions. That being said, my observations about ‘the new story’ go well beyond gen-y. I traveled to DC last week to visit with the first ever Director of Social Innovation. He’s technically a policy and resource bridge to 501c3’s but I can’t recall him using the term ‘not-for-profit’. More to my point about identity, he only spoke about change, systems and innovation.

You take the voices calling for a different vocabulary… you take a new demographic that doesn’t even think in terms of ‘not-for-profit’… and you start to see some top-down reframing and it’s possible to suppose a day in which we won’t even have ‘not-for-profits’.