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Agnosticism or Ambivalence?

April 6, 2009

I was first introduced to the term “sector agnostic” by Shena, a friend and colleague who also happens to be a professor of nonprofit studies.  During a Saturday morning mini-lecture at a favorite neighborhood coffee shop, during which Shena was nice enough to indulge the rest of us in her field of expertise, the conversation turned to the history of groups of people.

Obviously, there’s nothing new about people working in groups toward common goals.  But then tax codes sprung up, and governments decided that groups of people whose efforts are charitable in nature — I’ll leave a discussion of who defines “charitable” to another post — ought not to be taxed while pursuing these lofty goals.  Hence, tax-exempt entities and the modern associations, foundations and charitable organizations that dot the landscape of today’s America.

But at some point, this distinction of taxation came to mean so much more.  “Nonprofit” no longer refers to an organization qualifying for tax advantages, as the term might be understood from a technical standpoint.  The very word now evokes a sense of a certain managerial mindset, an outward image, a political lean, even a socioeconomic status.

More significantly, the term “nonprofit” has taken on a vision of the future for college students and other young adults trying to plot their lives.  Want a life of financial security, prestige and unfulfillment?  Just sell your soul and you can claim your place in corporate America!  Willing to eschew all of that to save the world amidst certain poverty?  Enter the nonprofit world!

These are obviously caricatures, but the connotative baggage that the word “nonprofit” carries with it, as well as the words “corporate” and “business,” is real and pervasive, and it colors our associations.  There is a pressure – and perhaps a tendency – among young adults to choose a career path under the assumption that one is better, or wiser, or more “moral.”  Almost as if choosing a religion, those who confront the wide open future and must place themselves within it are buying an orientation toward life.  With a nod to the sometimes religious nature of the discussion among the sectors, Ralph Smith, Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, recently prophesied a future in which entities would work together in a “sector agnostic” manner.  Winter 2008 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly.

My discomfort with this false dichotomy is probably why the term “sector agnostic” appealed to me right away.  I was instantly comfortable with describing my attitude toward the different arenas as agnostic, though not necessarily ambivalent.  The idea being, that there are merits to the sectors, all of which I appreciate and am happy to discuss at length, but when it comes right down to it, the way we act shouldn’t be all that different whether we are proponents of one sector or another.

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