What Am I to You?

What we call the people with whom we work says a lot about the lens through which we view them and their role in our shared effort.  The words we choose place those individuals within a context of influence defined by our worldview.  Making the cognitive shift from development to social change invites us to consider terminology beyond the traditional marketplace.


In the mid-90s, I taught in the Philippines, a beautiful country marked by tremendous economic inequality.  While I came from a culture that referred to parents of school children as, well, parents, the principal at the school where I worked referred to them as patrons.

Patron: a person who is a customer, client, or paying guest, especially a regular one, of a store, hotel, or the like.

Placing parents in a place of economic power over teachers and staff diminished the type of collaboration and communication that would lead to a deeper and more socially tolerant education for their children.  Intentionally or not, it conveyed a consumer hierarchy that placed parents over educators rather than as partners with them.

I was reminded of this when reading a GiveWell blog posting yesterday in which a GiveWell co-founder discusses characteristics of Givewell customers, referring to people who use the site to determine to whom they should give their money.  (GiveWell is a charity navigator that I have mentioned in a previous post.)  The term customer caught my eye—one doesn’t come across it too often in most NGO work, with one exception.

Customer: a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.

Patrons and customers typically pay something for a service which is short term and transactional in nature.  As soon as one person calls another a patron or customer, that person can presume their place within that institution’s consumer hierarchy.  Institutions serve customers, they don’t partner or collaborate with them.

Curious what terms other charity navigators use to describe the people who use their sites, I visited Guidestar.org.  They refer to individuals who use their site as users and visitors, to foundations as members, and to non-profits and other companies as clients.

Client: a person, company, etc, that seeks the advice of a professional man or woman; a customer; a person who is registered with or receiving services or financial aid from a welfare agency.

Many micro-lending NGOs describe the people who they serve in poor places around the world as clients (or customers).  The term conveys the distanced, transactional nature of the relationship between lender and loan recipient.  It suggests a sense of empowerment in that consumers have choices to seek services or not, but the exact nature of that power is elusive given that recipients of financial aid or welfare lack power by definition.

All of this poverty alleviation takes place with an environment of other organizations and institutions that together make up the global development sector or industry.

Industry: the aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises in a particular field, often named after its principal product: the automobile industry; the steel industry.

The global development industry includes a broad cross-section of NGOs, corporations, and educational institutions with little in common other than each has at least one eye on the world’s poor to help, save, market to, learn from, or otherwise engage with.  To get a sense of the scale of the development industry, scroll through Devnetjobs.org and see the jobs around the world, apparently to be filled by expatriate development workers.


The market approach to social development creates consumers of services, whether it be for information (for potential donors) or loans (for poor people), who operate within the development industry marketplace.  Terms with strong consumer connotations—customer or client—place recipients of these services within a hierarchy in which they have power to consume as long as the industry or service is in place. Implicit is the belief that this service is the gateway to considerable social gain, though these individuals are not citizens or members with right and responsibilities who work together on behalf of a long term social good.

Drawing on consumer terminology diminishes the reality that poor people live within a complex social web of non-economic institutions that limit their potential.  It promotes the construct that I have battled in many poverty-related meetings, that poverty is a simple factor of not having money.

Traditional models and hierarchies won’t get us where we need to go.  Our end goal should be people here and there collaborating and communicating across cultures to create solutions that address the complexities of poverty.  We need to shift our mental framework to make room for a diversity of people at the table.  The first step comes in the words we choose.  I choose words that convey  concepts of community.

Community: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

In this sense, a community is created when individuals comes together through shared interest and a shared sense of journey to a better world.  It is placed within a larger society, though not set apart from it.  One community might join with other communities to create a global social change community or sector, but not industry.

These NGO communities engage a range of individuals—members— in their work:

Member: a person, animal, plant, group, etc., that is part of a society, party, community, taxon, or other body.

Members come together with a sense of equality around that shared interest.  A community member bears a balance of right and responsibilities that serves the long term interest of that community.  In bi-cultural NGO communities, we use one term to describe individuals funding the project as well as the individuals receiving the benefits of those funds.  Members may also wear other hats—donor, participant, volunteer—but they share one identifier that allows them to find each other in a crowd.

What we call the people we work with says a lot about how we view the world.  It also conveys to them the role we see them having in the solutions we (or they) are implementing within their communities.  The role of customer or client is a means to an end.  The role of community member is one that lasts.

2 responses to “What Am I to You?

  1. Thanks for this post. My children go to a private school, and at a meeting of the parents’ association there this past year, I raised my hand and asked a question during which I found myself referring to, “… what we [parents] are buying here.” Boy did that raise eyebrows in the room, particularly among the school administrators in attendance, whose community-approach sensibilities took offense at my (unpremeditated) use of the market-approach term, “buying.” Indeed the language we use matters. Since then I’ve become more sensitive to this question of marketplace-vs.-community.

    • Yes… private schools must walk a fine line between the marketplace and community because what is best for the customer is not always best for the community. It is an individual vs. social good question, which forces the administrators to be very clear and vocal about the organizational values. It always comes back to values. Thanks for commenting!

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