Language and Intention and Business

Although my last post was deeply personal, I return here with a systems level look at a problem facing the nonprofit and for-profit arts sectors – that we use language imprecisely – and a corporate form that could help ameliorate that problem.  I am reacting in part to a recent post by Alorie Clark about the need to change the language we use in the nonprofit arts sector to describe what the sector does and what it needs. I would argue, as Jaan Whitehead has long before me, that part of the problem is defining a group of organizations by what it is not (profit) rather than what it is for (mission).  When I was a lighting designer, I didn’t  discriminate between nonprofit and for-profit organizations as long as the work was interesting and meaningful and the artists and crew were paid adequately for their work and treated with respect.  Many young artists I work with today are less concerned about being in a “nonprofit” or “for-profit” organization and more concerned about what business form will allow them to do the work they want to do and have the impact they want to have.

Is there a way to describe an arts organization business structure by what it “is” rather than what it is not? In Arizona and 13 other states, there is – the “Benefit Corporation.”  The benefit corporation (or “B-Corp”) is being advocated for by a nonprofit corporation called B-Lab to push states to allow corporations to have a triple bottom line of social benefit, positive environmental impact, and profit.  The incentives for forming a B-corp are not strictly economic, just as the incentives for forming a 501c3 are not.  Arts organizations could do well to investigate the B-corp as a means of aligning social mission with economic reality and their language with their intention.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, including its award-winning arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at
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4 Responses to Language and Intention and Business

  1. Kevin Hackett says:

    A true non profit would be 100% donation driven and 100% volunteer staff. I have yet to find one that even comes close.

  2. Just what neo-liberalism wants. Let the private sector take care of the public.

  3. The B corporation value proposition is pretty clear–using business approaches to solve social and environmental problems. While there ARE cultural organizations that use the arts in a similar instrumental way, the vast majority exist for an altogether different purposes. The language around these missions tends towards the language of elevation, not the language of problem-solving. Having said that, the profit/non-profit dichotomy with all the false connotations it provokes IS a problem. Too often, it sends the unintended message that non-profits are bad businesspeople when the facts paint a more complex picture.

  4. Pingback: Language and Intention and Business | Symposium Magazine

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