Sectorness: What does "nonprofit" do for us?

posted by
Mark Hager, Ph.D.

Associate Professor,

ASU School of Community
Resources & Development

If you're reading this, you've probably already been indoctrinated into the idea that nonprofit has some particular useful meaning. Not everybody thinks so, or has thought so for very long.

The quibble is that this "sector" is really a whacky collection of radically different organizations. Who would put hospitals in the same bucket as credit unions, and then throw operas in, too? Who thinks social service organizations should fly under the same banner as those that organize the public for political change?

So, these things are all defined under one section of a messy tax code. Is that really a reason to study, talk about, and define a professional identity of a "nonprofit sector?" Better maybe, for the different pieces to keep to themselves, with their own methods, language, and professional development programs? Maybe. My favorite historian, Peter Dobkin Hall, wrote a defining essay in one of his books that describes the "invention" of the nonprofit sector in the United States. It isn't the missions that have so much been invented, mind you — it's the idea of collective sectorness.

Look at it this way. The term "philanthropy" has been in American parlance for a long time, referring to individual action, charitable behavior, and (more recently) the professional field of grantmaking foundations. Google Labs has a cool tool where you can map usage of words in published materials. The map for American English usage of "philanthropy" is below. The term has seen a surge over the past decade, but it's nonetheless about half as popular as it was in 1850. Anyway, the term has been around for a long time. "Philanthropy" is roughly as common now as it was 200 years ago.


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