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We Need A New Word For Service

It’s time to change the vocabulary of doing good. The words the industry uses have no bearing on the way real people talk, and they’re the people who need to be reached.

To help more people take the leap from good intentions to action, we need better words for what we do. "Service," "volunteerism," "civic engagement"—even "nonprofit" and "social entrepreneurship"—are all weak substitutes for the action-oriented verbs that people actually use to describe how they work together and help one another.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Outside of the military, who goes to a dinner party and asks people where they "serve"? Only we, the organizations and foundations that make up the "service industrial complex" talk this way. People want to build, coach, teach, help, and if we want to engage them, we have to talk like them. 

This problem runs deep. The software industry has a name. It’s not called the "non-hardware" industry. But we work for "nonprofits" and we want people to "volunteer" and support this "non" thing we do.

At Idealist.org, we are the only nonprofit in our office building in New York, and it’s always fascinating to start talking to "normal" people in the elevator and explain what we do here. Talk about "service" or "volunteerism" and their eyes will glaze over very quickly. And when the local news reports that a criminal has been sentenced to 100 hours of "community service" the whole thing doesn’t sound very appealing. 

Yes, according to some studies, 25% of Americans volunteer in some way. But if we want to engage the rest, and engage them more deeply and meaningfully, we have to try to use better words.

What would work better? Kaboom! invites people to build playgrounds. Do Something, well, does things, using language that teens use. The Sierra Club invites people to explore, enjoy, and protect the planet. These are the kinds of words that can move people and get them to act. The internal jargon of grant proposals and white papers won’t do it.

When asked, most people are happy to help, pitch in, lend a hand. And given the opportunity, they will step up to build and fix and change things. But do they want to "serve?" I am not so sure.

The problem is not only with the word itself, but also with the flavor of apolitical vanilla that it carries, and the harder and more meaningful conversations that it can displace. For example, a group of employees at a big company will get together to talk about participating in a local walk for charity (nothing wrong with that), but no one will bring up the fact that the lowest-paid 10% of the company’s employees are barely making a living wage, or that the company’s environmental track record is one of the worst in its industry.

By confining these conversations to "service" instead of opening them up to any action that people may want to take for the common good, we may avoid some touchy controversies, but we also miss out on some of the more significant things we could do for a better community and a better world.

So how do we change this? Gradually, and stubbornly, by replacing this jargon with the strong and active words that people use in their everyday life, and by opening up this conversation to include not only "service" and "volunteerism" but also advocacy, activism, and politics. Serving a meal to a homeless person is valuable and necessary, but to end or reduce homelessness we also need to go beyond that.