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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, 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.

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  • Annastasia Palubiski

    Is the idea of "knowledge philanthropy" more engaging? It's about community organizations being able to actually develop the right roles to allow people to meaningfully contribute - with not only their time but also their TALENT!

  • Brett

    Ami, well said. the concept you've discussed are some of the building blocks of wherein there needs to be more action and less conceptualization of service and kicking the can down the road to another day rather than step into the action and get things accomplished.  Our concept is based on tomorrow never being guaranteed so don't wait for it, get active; and we chose words that embodied I think what you are describing; Create, Realize, Explore, Taste, Imagine.  All words that move that conceptual thought into productive action.  Or as you say "take the leap from good intentions to action"

  • John Riecke

    How about "contribute"? I have a job, but I don't feel as if I do anything useful for society by it's existence or by doing it well. "How do you contribute" should be a valid question and implies that creating wealth for its own sake is not useful.

  • BarbaraBullard Arthumanities

    I believe it's "Social Mindfulness".  I'd like to elaborate on another setting but I offer those words with the "mindfulness" of encouragement!

  • Dianamdavidson

    Hi Ami.
    I think the word you are searching for is 'purpose'. Purpose provides the call to action you seek and the impetus to achieve collaborative milestones towards reaching the ultimate objective realising the originally agreed purpose.   
    In business, purpose is closely linked to the strongest brands. I believe other enterprises could learn from this to reinforce engagement and participation.

  • Rachael Chong

    Ami, I completely agree -- people's eyes certainly glaze over when the terms "volunteer", "service" or even "giving" are used -- we've been struggling with this at Catchafire. Our big thing is to make "service" just a regular part of people's lives. I think that a new more relevant lexicon would be helpful, but I also think that if we change the types of opportunities people can participate in -- i.e. volunteer opportunities that are relevant to people's skills and passions -- the term "volunteer" and "service" will no longer be associated with "little old ladies in Keds" as Aaron says, but with something that makes sense to the individual "volunteering" or "serving". Yep, so what I'm saying is that if we as the gatekeepers or middlemen providing the volunteer experiences step up our game and provide great experiences (like Idealist already does -- in making it easy for people to access these types of relevant opportunities) -- the connotations associated with the words "volunteer" and "service" will change and no longer be boring but relevant.

  • Abby

    Interesting....this conversation is happening a lot outside the borders of the USA as well. Really, in the USA, we have done a great job of creating a "concept," establishing an entire "sector." What can we say, we are great marketers? Regardless of the word we use "service, volunteer, advocacy, etc," we have excelled at making it "a thing." From a day of service to a year of service, there is pride in having such a concept attached to our being and that is a characteristic that we DO discuss around the dinner table. Now, the larger question is not just the definition but the part at the end of the article that talks about getting to the root of the do we get those we spend a day painting a school to then advocate for improved curriculum? How can we make "knowledge-based service" a thing?

  • Ami

    Hi Sean - yes, this is exactly what I meant. "We need a new word for service" is the title Fast Company gave this piece, but I don't think we need a new word. We just need to talk like...people, exactly like you suggest. Thanks! 

  • Sean Cox

    Or perhaps go in the other direction.  Rather than looking for a new word, which often sounds too contrived, or even manipulative in some way, and sometimes self-serving, how about just describing the action/behavior that one is doing?  Allow people to fill in the subtext of "serving" themselves, rather than putting a spotlight on it.  "I'm teaming up with folks to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, and having a lot of fun doing it" (subtext=I'm helping meet a need) vs. "I'm serving the less fortunate by building them a house" (subtext="aren't I special?")

  • Lmenefield

    Sean - you hit a note with your "teaming up" as I recall hearing organizations use the term "partnering up" and wonder what does that mean exactly?

  • Aaron Hurst

    Has anyone every done a study on American attitudes toward these terms and alternative ones?  Would be interesting to see what words people associate with volunteerism. Early in my career, for me it was "little old laddies in keds" and was always turned off by it.   

  • Peter

    I think there's a good point to be made here, but I'm not sure Ami is digging deep enough. 

    How about we start thinking of a just, sharing society as the new normal, and start calling greedy, parasitical industries and professions for what they are instead?

    Another bif question is what role "volunteering" really plays in this. How does it fit with fair wages for honest work? If it has value, why not pay for it?

    There is something intrinsically violent about the entire notion of 'charity.'

  • pjmcginn

    "Joyful Effort" is what runs through my thoughts when I am volunteering or serving.