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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Nonprofit as Shibboleth

I’m not sure it’s possible to write this blog post without looking like a grammar Nazi, but I’m going to give it a whirl. Should be interesting, anyway.

This post is about the way people write the word nonprofit. Or non-profit. Or sometimes I even see non profit. Maybe these alternate spellings are all the same to you, and that’s fine. But for some people, the way you write this word says something about you. In the extreme case, if you do it the “wrong” way you might not get that grant, or that job, or that meeting. It might just matter that much. You never know who is on the other side of your writing or what they are thinking. 

Before I wind my way to my point, let me give a couple examples of how the words we use signal whether we are in with the cool kids or outside in the cold. The first one goes back about 3,000 years, when the armies of Gilead beat back the invading Ephramites. As told in the 12th chapter of the “Book of Judges” in the Christian bible, the Ephramites tried to blend in with the locals as they were fleeing the country. How do you sort out the bad guys? The Gilead soldiers had learned that the Ephramites had a hard time pronouncing some Hebrew words, including one that described the grain-bearing part of a plant stalk: shibboleth (שִׁבֹּלֶת‎). So, as people were crossing out of Gilead, army checkpoints asked each person to pronounce the word shibboleth. Say it like a Gileadite, and you can pass. Say it like an Ephramite and your carcass got dumped in the river. 

A second example has stuck with me for 20 years since I saw Johnny Depp in the movie Donnie Brasco. Depp’s Brasco is an undercover FBI agent deeply embedded in the New York mafia in the 1970s. Like the Epramites, Brasco has to either speak the culture or die. In one memorable scene, Brasco’s FBI buddies ask Brasco what his mafia buddies mean when they say “fuggetaboutit.” Brasco explains that it can mean agreement. Or disagreement. Or that something is really good. Or it can be used to tell somebody off. Or that they should just forget about something. Context matters for the meaning, but only people in on the culture really understood the multiple meanings and range of usage. Use it wrong in the wrong context? Then, fuggetaboutit.

Okay, so how you write the word nonprofit probably isn’t going to get you killed, but it can be a signal to people about whether you’re in on the culture or not. I’m editor of an academic journal, so I see people writing about the nonprofit sector all the time. If you signal to me that you don’t really know the culture of the sector, I’m more likely to overlook your manuscript. I read all the applications to ASU’s masters degree in nonprofit leadership in management. If you don’t talk the talk used in the nonprofit sector, I might question your experience with it. Oddly enough, it seems to me that how people write the word nonprofit is one of those signals. It’s a shibboleth. Or at least it’s my shibboleth. 

I don’t want to get judgy, but writing it as “non profit” is just plain wrong. In all versions of English, we just don’t write prefixes as their own words. The only counter-example I can think of is the band “4 Non Blondes.” I’ll defend their right to spell their band name however they want , but non profit isn’t a band name. Spell it this way, and I’ll not only think that you aren’t in the in-group, but you’re also illiterate.

Mostly it just comes down to the hyphen. Maybe you spell it as “non-profit,” but if you don’t you’ve almost certainly seen it done that way. And we shouldn’t be surprised: some style guides, like the one that my local big newspaper uses, says that you use a hyphen with the prefix ‘non.’ I get it. My newspaper is always going to use the hyphen. Other professionals, both inside the sector and out, are going to use the hyphen. Some academic authors are going to use the hyphen. Some of my students are going to use the hyphen. I’m not going to say that it is wrong, but I’m going to circle it in red pen for the same reason that I circle jargony nonwords like “impactful”: I want people to think about the implications of what they are writing.

So, Dr. Judgy Grammar Nazi, why is “nonprofit” so much better? It’s not so much that it is better as it is a shibboleth for insiderness, one that signals your cultural awareness to people who are reading you for clues. In short, people who study and write about the nonprofit sector have ditched the hyphen. People who work to advocate for and organize the nonprofit sector have ditched the hyphen. Some examples:

  • Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (a leading academic journal)
  • Nonprofit Management and Leadership (another one)
  • Nonprofit Quarterly (a leading trade publication)
  • Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (our local graduate degree program)
  • ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation (our local academic center)
  • Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (my professional association)
  • Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits (our state association)
  • National Council of Nonprofits (a national one)

I could go on. The point is that the field has moved toward the hyphenless nonprofit, and use of the hyphen can get you labeled  an outsider. If you’re not in, you’re out. It’s hard to know when that might matter, but for the Ephramites and Donnie Brasco using a word wrong could be fatal. For us, it just means a sidelong look that might be just as bad. Use the hyphen if you want, but you should know that you run the risk of being shibbolethed.

Mark A. Hager is Associate Professor in the School of Community Resources & Development, where he is co-director of graduate studies in nonprofit leadership and management. He is Editor-in-Chief of Nonprofit Management & Leadership.

Hager joined the faculty at ASU in 2008. Before moving to Phoenix, he was a Senior Research Associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank.

His research includes studies of the scope, dimensions, administration, and financial operations of and reporting by nonprofit organizations. Hager earned his Ph.D. in organizational sociology at the University of Minnesota with a study of the causes of nonprofit organization closure.

Hager is a faculty affiliate of the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation and the ASU Center for Organization Research and Design (CORD). He is a member of the graduate faculty in the School of Community Resources & Development, the School of Social Work and the sociology programs in the School of Social and Family Dynamics.

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