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.