Civil Benefit Organizations

Civil Benefit Organizations

We wrote recently about the nonprofit sector’s name as something we’re not, as something that doesn’t say what we do, how we do it or what comes of it. So we concluded that the descriptor “nonprofit” has to go.

But what to call ourselves? Response wasn’t overwhelming, although there were some very good ideas generated, really good ones. Unfortunately, like the ten we cited, all suggested names left something out that needed to be there.

The idea of “benefit” seemed appropriate in describing the work, so we needed to find the all-embracing element that received the benefit. The more we explored the word “civil” in its roots and meaning, the better it got.


We know about civil service, civil unions, civil rights, even civil war, so why not use that word “civil?” It seems to cover a lot of the area in which we work.

Merriam-Webster defines, among many definitions, “civil” in this way:

of or relating to citizens

of or relating to the state or its citizenry

 civilized <civil society> of, relating to, or involving the general public, their activities, needs, or ways, or civic affairs as distinguished from special (as military or religious) affairs”

 We need to split one particular hair: religion. Civil would not encompass the theology of religion, although it would describe many of the things organized religion does, e.g. feeding the hungry, teaching, care for the sick. So we wind up with two groups: those religious groups not having to file 990s, e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques; and those religious civil benefit groups, many in the institutions described above, doing good for society. Works for me.

So we bring civilization, we stand for civility, we benefit society and we may have a name.


But wait a minute. Is “benefit” the most appropriate descriptor of our outputs? Messrs. Merriam and Webster give a number of meanings including the following about “benefit”

“archaic :  an act of kindness :  benefaction something that promotes well-being :  advantage useful aid : help financial help in time of sickness, old age, or unemployment”

We can bring back the archaic meaning for completeness! We can have Civil Benefit organization benefits! We clearly benefit. Seriously, the word does fit what we are looking for.


The Civil Benefit Sector, as our new name, takes thought and time to work. At least it is a step in the right direction. However it needs to replace other words completely, not be just a stop in our naming journey. So what are its limitation? First, it takes all of the above to fit it into the needed categories. It is not intuitively there. It takes some learning. Then there’s the inertia resisting any change. Why bother?

What is the upside of redoing lots of ingrained assumptions, use and recognition? Well, it should be a long-term fix of the problem. It should immediately explain to the person from Mars or Venus what our sector does.

Finally, it may, hopefully, unite us in an overall sector mission that reminds us what we do and what we want as a result of what we do. So let’s start talking about the potential change.

  1. Peter Gorham Says: April 29, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for a full and clear analysis.

    With regard to the complexities of implementation, it is useful to consider the experience of national developmental disabilities organizations (such as The Arc of the US) in their efforts to retire the stigmatizing term “mental retardation” and replace it with “intellectual and developmental disabilities.” One of the major initial hurdles that was faced and eventually overcome was the fact that federal laws, statutes and regulations had made heavy use of the MR term since the 1950s. The question at hand: if we want to replace “mental retardation,” would everything have to be reviewed and re-worked? After much advocacy and lobbying, the public officials eventually came around and passed relatively simple legislation that made the terms equivalent – allowing an eventual phase-out in the use of the MR term. However, it took much time and effort for Congress to finally come aboard this movement for change. It may be that the same course may be required for “civil benefit organizations.”

    • James Toscano Says: April 29, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      You raise and answer an important part of the need to change not only the name but the overall concept of the words used.
      A build-up of support for this or a better name will, in fact, have to go through the process you outline Thank you for this response.

  2. Hi Jim and Dania,

    I think ‘civil benefit sector’ is a fine starting point for this name change. I have often thought that it weakens us as a sector to call us what we are not, giving power to the for-profit sector and adding confusion to the idea of profit margins or making a living from our work and etc. I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the baseline give and take “rules” of our sector and how things have changed in the past forty years. Have we, I have asked myself and others, created a sector that was destined to fail? Were our baseline assumptions about revenue sustainable ones? If you have deeper discussions or panel discussions or such on these broad topics, I’d love to be involved. Thanks for your work. /Beth at (952) 401-0591

    • James Toscano Says: April 29, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Agree. Very thoughtful response. The rules are changing, although we as a sector can play a very stong hand with these changes. See my article on “The New Philanthropists” in Volume 89 of Pollen. j

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *