Beneficiary … client … consumer … customer … guest … partner … participant … recipient. Those are just some of the names used to refer to the people with whom nonprofits work. Which one(s) an organization uses depends on the sector in which it works, the relationship between the organization and those it serves, whether or not the government has assigned an “official” name, and sometimes just what’s in fashion at the time.
For quite a while, the term “consumer” was in vogue. It came to be widely used in the fields of mental health, developmental disability and homelessness, among others. It was seen as a word that lacked the negative connotations of some previously used terms and seemed like a good parallel with how “customer” is seen in the for-profit world.
I have never liked it much myself. I enjoy reading Consumer Reports at my dentist’s office, and I’m flattered when advertisers appeal to me as a “discriminating consumer.” But when it is applied in the relationship between a service provider and those who are homeless or disabled, it strikes me as implying passivity and helplessness: consumer as opposed to producer.
When I worked for organizations that served the homeless, I always preferred the term “client.” A client is someone with whom there is a mutually beneficial agreement, and with that comes a sense of equality and responsibility. Clients don’t passively “consume” inputs. They are actively engaged in a relationship where they provide something of value (such as money, labor and program participation) in return for something else of value (such as food, shelter and counseling).
Of course, in emergency circumstances, someone may not be able to offer anything in exchange. A person without a penny to his or her name who is suffering a mental health crisis, for example, is not ready to enter into a client/provider relationship. That’s why I also like the term “guest.” A guest is not expected to pay in any way for what is provided but the term carries with it respect, responsibility and a sense of hospitality.
What we call people, and the words we use to describe our interactions, are important. At Habitat, we enter into a partnership agreement with homeowners who earn sweat equity while working toward the purchase of a Habitat home. What’s the difference if that last sentence instead read: “At Habitat, we require a contract with beneficiaries who fulfill requirements before receiving a Habitat home?
Technically, it is still an accurate description of the process. But it implies a very different dynamic between Habitat and those with whom we work. Instead of being partners in a mutually beneficial relationship – the true nature of our interaction – the second version gives the impression that Habitat is a grantor and the homeowner is a petitioner. Nothing could be further from the truth. We assist homeowners for a year or so, with resources, information and instruction. Then they assist us for 30 years, making monthly mortgage payments that support the continuation of our program.
For many years, Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity used the term “Family Services” to refer to the department that recruits, instructs and guides people through the homeownership process. But using that term led the public to believe that having children was a requirement to become a Habitat homeowner. This meant that singles, empty-nesters, and others mistakenly believed that they didn’t qualify. In fact, Habitat works with families of all kinds and sizes, from one person to many, including those that span or skip generations. So we have renamed that department “Homeowner Services,” which more accurately reflects its role and our mission.
Whatever business you’re in, whether for-profit or nonprofit, do a periodic check-in to make sure that the terms you use accurately reflect your intent. Relationships change and public perceptions evolve. Sometimes participants grow into customers, who evolve into clients, and then develop into partners. It’s important to have accurate and descriptive names. If you don’t, you may end up as confused as Lou Costello trying to figure out who’s on first:
Steve Spain is the Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Over the last 25 years, CFHFH has provided first-time homeownership opportunities to more than 150 families and currently builds a dozen new houses a year. To explore volunteer or sponsorship opportunities or to learn more about Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s programs, visit www.capefearhabitat.org. Contact Mr. Spain at [email protected]. Like CFHFH on Facebook: www.facebook.com/capefearhabitat.
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