by Glenn Reed
(Swans - January 30, 2012) What does the word consumer mean to you?
According to the Webster Dictionary Web site, a consumer is "one that utilizes economic goods." (1)
Economic goods make you think of toothpaste, jeans, or new cars. But what about clean air, a chronic illness, or a house on fire?
These days, non-profits have eagerly adopted the language of free-market capitalism, including consumer. They hire marketing managers instead of community outreach managers. They speak of branding their product. They refer to those they serve as consumers instead of clients. No big deal, most would say: They're just....words.
But words pack power. And they reflect an agenda.
The strength of a real democracy lies partly in its system of checks and balances. Strong, (truly) representative governments, the private sector (including a healthy number of "Mom & Pop" businesses) and non-governmental organizations (non-profits, volunteer groups, etc.) serve specific segments of society and keep an eye on each other so that no one gets too powerful. Ideally, this balance is aided by a vibrant free press.
Unfortunately, those checks and balances barely exist in today's America, with corporate interests ruling Washington, D.C., and most state houses, aided by a compliant, corporate-owned "mainstream" media. This scenario sets up a clear dilemma for non-profits that exist for humanitarian, environmental, and other common-good "causes" and not for bottom lines and shareholders. When motivated by such causes, non-profits are willing to do most anything in support of them. They will adapt to changing conditions to do so rather than challenge trends or the status quo. They tend to be reactive rather than proactive. But at what point does that adaptability become detrimental and really represent selling out? What are the signs that this is happening? One is language.
Non-profits bow before all-knowing corporations that tell them, saying "You need to be run like a business and be smart about competing (with other non-profits)." Partly they do so because those corporations are potential donors (conflict of interest). They allow themselves to be lectured condescendingly because working for a non-profit in our society is often viewed as a weakness and means you're incompetent or unprofessional. "It's the only job you could get!" non-profit staff are often told. "If your organization just behaved like a business, then you, too, would benefit from the magic of the market!"
Talk about self-esteem issues.
This is the same argument that's been lodged against government entities since the Reagan days, thus contributing to the virtual morphing of the government and corporate sectors. Disappearing in the process are the checks and balances that are essential to the survival of real democracy and the general welfare. Also gone is recognition of any common good as a valid motivating factor.
This is not to say that non-profits aren't prone to corruption or incompetence. They most certainly are, but no more so than the private sector or government. Addressing those deficiencies, however, should have more to do with proper checks and balances from within the non-profit and from the people they serve. It should not mean behaving more like those that you are meant to help police or sacrificing those common-good services/actions of which the private sector and/or government cannot or will not adequately provide. But, back to language... Just think of a few ways some words or terms have evolved in the past few decades, and what effect that has had.
In the 1960s, the word liberal was virtually a badge of honor. Hell, there was even a liberal wing of the Republican Party! Nowadays, Fox News "commentators," virtually all Republican pols, and much of the general public castigate people with liberal as if it's a scarlet letter. Even Dems shy away from the word. Those whose policy stands would have been considered as moderate or even conservative a few, scant decades ago are now tarred and feathered as loathsome liberals. The word has been distorted beyond recognition and many who would define themselves as liberal have adopted the (seemingly) safe alternative of progressive. And the entire political spectrum has shifted to the far right as a result of this assault on a single word.
Such is the power of language and of those who wield control of that language.
From Goebbels to Karl Rove, the principles (and results) are much the same. Think of the term "collateral damage" as applied by the Department of Defense. It sounds so much more immaculate than dead or destroyed. Consider the word associate and what it truly implies for employees of Walmart. The word hints at some equal footing and vested, shared interest. One definition is "one associated with another: as a): partner, colleague; b) companion, comrade." (2) In this instance, however, such a partner or comrade isn't entitled to fair wages or benefits.
Think of "punishing the successful" as currently wielded by the corporate media when referring to the so-called "class war." Oh, those cruel people in poverty, hungry children, homeless seniors, and unemployed -- always picking on the rich! Adopting such language means the subtle creep of acceptance for situations, attitudes, systems, etc., that are often unethical, unjust, and destructive. 1984 indeed.
And non-profits are buying in.
For instance, take the word typically used by non-profits to describe those who utilize their programs and services. It used to be client. Today, most use the word consumer. Why? By definition, consumer evokes images of a capitalistic economic system. Remember: a consumer is "one that utilizes economic goods," while the definition of client includes "a person who engages the professional advice or services of another" or "a person served by, or utilizing the services of a social agency." (3)
This is an important difference. Consumer is not about any common good, but demands profit. It doesn't require caring as the primary motive for the transaction. It commodifies.
Now consider a person with mental illness, or someone with multiple sclerosis, or an endangered bird, or a polluted river. Do these exist in some universal market in which everyone and everything is a consumer? If one truly believes in any motivation that isn't all about personal gain, then why use this language? Why not be proud of your own language? When non-profits speak in capitalism/marketing, aren't they validating a system that doesn't value them unless they, too, are competitors driven by a bottom line?
Consumer also implies commodity rather than human being, animal, ecosystem, etc. So where's the choice of consumer goods? Does one choose to have a mental illness or chronic condition such as multiple sclerosis and then choose -- in a free market -- the services (often the only ones) available through a non-profit? And doesn't a free market require growth and a steady stream of products? So would more people having a disease or increased threats to an endangered species be good for an organization? Would fewer mean that prices should be raised?
It seems that the common good counts for zero in this equation.
Think of the trend for governments to privatize prisons as another example. Businesses demand profit. So they need more prisoners to make a profit. Bye-bye common good! Also consider non-profit health organizations and pharmaceutical companies. What "product" does the latter need? More people with a disease. Why? To sell them more pills, to justify more money for "research for a cure," to rationalize more advertising. From where might Big Pharma find this product? "Hey, National Blip Syndrome Association, we'll sponsor your fundraiser and give more dollars to research for a cure if you give us more access to your.....consumers." Ah, the wonders of the free market!
So, non-profit professionals adopt this language (and practices) under the guise of survival. They argue "we're doing it for our....consumers!"
But enablers never do well in the long run. Often they don't survive.
And currently, by embracing that language of economics at the expense of one of caring and the common good, non-profits are complicit in the race to the bottom, where fewer and fewer scraps will be available to fewer and fewer non-profits. Eventually, starvation will be the reality for all.
Which is fine to those who believe in a Darwinian society, unregulated free market, but not in a common good. But that's not what motivates most of us who work in the non-profit world. Hopefully. So why not start speaking the language of what does motivate us? Without apology.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)