"Charity" and the Language Around Nonprofits

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if someone referred to my organization, Dwell with Dignity, as “a little charity.” Yet the more we evolve as an organization, and as a society, the more I’ve grown to dislike that word. Allow me to take a moment to explain why, and why business leaders specifically should embrace updated terminology to stay relevant and actionable in the world of corporate philanthropy.

The word “charity” carries many connotations, some good and some not so good. On the one hand, it refers to helping those in need, which is certainly a worthwhile cause. On the other hand, it can imply a sense of helplessness and even weakness among those in need; consider the pejorative and outdated term “charity case” as an example.

When it comes to Dwell with Dignity, I reject the term “charity” for a few reasons. For one, it’s extraordinarily reductive. Yes, we do help people in need — but, importantly, we help them help themselves. It’s not just the work of our team that changes lives, but also the remarkable determination and courage of the families themselves.

Without their strength and resolve, Dwell with Dignity couldn’t fulfill its mission of transforming lives through design. We may bring the design, but it’s our families who ultimately bring the transformation. The word “charity” erases this agency and minimizes their role in the transformation process.

Next, I hate the idea that the people we serve might be perceived as helpless or charity cases. On the contrary, they’re some of the strongest people you’ll ever meet. Most of them are single mothers who have worked hard to escape domestic violence and homelessness, all the while raising multiple children. The fact that any of these inspiring women could be seen as weak is almost laughable.

Finally, I reject the term “charity” because it’s just not big enough to encompass our goals as an organization. “Charity” denotes a beginning and an end; when you think of charity work, you think about donating money or volunteering at a soup kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, these are great ways to give back, but our goal is bigger than that.

So, how does this all affect corporations and business leaders? In many ways, actually. As our workforce is increasingly filled with younger generations, especially Millennials and Gen Z, employers are hearing from their internal workforces that corporate responsibility is a core issue to them. Employees are demanding that their organizations are engaged in local philanthropies, providing days off to volunteer or taking a bigger role as an organization and adopting an entire nonprofit cause.

However, utilization of the word charity diminishes the impact the younger generation (myself included) is looking to make. Many in my generation think of charity as a church, not as leading systemic change in our communities. In order to continue to recruit top talent, corporations need to include a philanthropic plan into their operations in a substantial way.

My team and I are after large-scale, long-term change on an individual and societal level, and we want business leaders to join us on this quest, combining our talents and resources for greater impact. Rather than completing a one-and-done charity project, we want to prepare our families for a lifetime of financial stability and independence and spur economic development in the communities where they live. It’s also our goal to create societal change in the way we think about homelessness. We envision a world where all human beings can truly dwell with dignity, and it’s going to take a change in our values to get there.

Now, you may wonder why this matters so much to me — it’s just one word, after all. But the thing is, language matters, now more than ever, and especially to the new generations entering the workforce. It impacts the way we see and interact with the world around us and the people who live in it. Every organization owes it to the individual families they serve to be precise and careful with what they say, using language in a way that preserves their agency and dignity. To that end, “charity” just isn’t going to cut it.

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