Remembering Irwin Abrams

By Scott London — December 31, 2010

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams passed away a few days before Christmas. He was a longtime professor of history at Antioch College, a pioneer in the field of peace research, and a global authority on the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also my grandfather.

We worked together on many projects over the years, including a couple of books, and I learned much of what I know about scholarly research and historical analysis from him. But his influence goes far deeper.

When I was a kid, he instilled in me a great love of knowledge — first through stories, and later through ideas. He was always presenting me with books and newspaper clippings, introducing me to his favorite students (and there were many), and sending me off on unexpected research assignments.

Growing up as I did in Sweden, he used to enlist my help translating articles from Swedish and Norwegian. I eventually became his far-flung research assistant. Before I was out of my teens, he had me running off to do interviews for his various projects.

Irwin AbramsI remember one occasion when he had me travel to meet the late daughter of Carl Von Ossietzky, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. She spoke Swedish but little or no English, so I was perfect for the job, he said. The interview carried on late into the day. She made me soup, served me cookies and tea, and later, as I was readying to leave, took out an old shoebox and showed me an item wrapped in terry cloth. I opened it to find her father’s gleaming Nobel Peace Prize medal. It was an impressive 23-carat gold piece weighing almost half a pound, with Gustav Vigeland’s beautiful engraving of three men locked in an embrace. It was assignments like these that nurtured my passion for journalism.

My grandfather loved to travel, to eat, to sing, and to tell jokes. He used to dance with his arms raised above his head, like Zorba the Greek. He spoke several languages, most of them quite badly, but always with a carefree exuberance. He was never a showman, but he loved a celebration and was happiest when in the midst of family and friends.

There was nothing in the world he cherished more than my grandmother, Freda. They were married 60 years. I used to love watching them beam at each other across a room, or across a big dinner table. He often told the story of how they met at a new year’s party on a train from Chicago to San Francisco in the months leading up to World War II. By the time they heard the stationmaster’s “bells and whistles” in Cheyenne, Wyoming, heralding the arrival of the new year, they were hearing bells and whistles of their own.

After she died in 1999, it was like a light in him had been extinguished. He spoke of her everyday, kept her artwork on his walls and her photos on the bedside table. Almost every time her name would come up, his voice would break.

He was always a special presence in my life, but perhaps especially after my grandmother died. During the last ten years, we were in touch almost every day, took on joint projects, and made trips together. Our conversations grew deeper, more rich and nuanced.

He came into his final years as I entered mid-life. There was a curious symmetry there, and I had much to learn from him about the transitions of life. His role shifted from grandfather to mentor, and finally to confidant.

When I saw him for the last time in mid-November, he still displayed his sparkling sense of humor. As usual, he seemed more interested in hearing about me than in talking about himself. Several times he would reach over and take my hand while we were talking, always very sweet and attentive.

Although he worked with a physical therapist several times a week, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair toward the end. He was quite frail and hunched over and though he wasn’t ill I sensed that time was running out. He died peacefully on December 16, a couple of months shy of his 97th birthday.

In the course of drafting an obituary, and also planning for the upcoming memorial service, I’ve been going back to his writings and correspondence. To my amazement, I discovered a letter addressed to me, written just days after I was born. “May I be the first to send you a letter welcoming you to this planet,” it begins. “There may be moments when you will regret your decision to dwell among us, but may I wish you a long residence here with few occasions for such regrets.”

My grandfather not only welcomed me into this world, he was always there to guide me along, especially during times of sorrow and regret (there have been more than a few). He had a long residence here on the planet, and he enriched many people’s lives. But few as deeply as mine.

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 1966

Irwin Abrams With Freda and Irwin in Maine, 1976

Irwin AbramsWith Irwin in Oslo, 2002

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 2010

Readings and Recommendations

By Scott London — December 20, 2010

Scott London on TwitterThe world is getting freer, quantum physics is getting weirder, multitasking is a myth, Americans are full of doubt, and the Norwegians have it best. Here’s a sampling of interesting articles and other stuff on the web.

These links were culled from my Twitter feed. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

  • The long-term trend is clear — the world is becoming increasingly free and democratic. But there have been setbacks in recent years. Growing human rights abuses in places like Russia and China are perhaps especially worrisome. See Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom in the World Survey
  • American Grace, a new book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, documents a new and remarkable trend in America: the mass defection of young people away from organized religion. See American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
  • Quality work and multitasking are incompatible. People simply can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously. See E-Mail is Making You Stupid
  • In a provocative article in Fast Company magazine, Richard Watson cites two interesting studies. The first claims that we last, on average, three minutes at work before something interrupts us. The other suggests that constant disruption has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. See The Rise of Connectivity Addition
  • According to an interesting piece in the New York Times, unhappiness often comes as a result of letting our minds wander. While there’s no doubt that distraction can lead to discontent, it can also lead people to creative solutions, which might make them happier in the long term. See When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays by John Tierny
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger represents yesterdays California Dream, Richard Rodriguez observes in a terrific video interview with Sandip Roy. But tomorrow’s California Dream belongs to men like Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin. See Richard Rodriguez talks about California
  • Spiegel Online reports that some 47 percent of Americans no longer believe in the American Dream. See Is the American Dream Over?
  • For the eighth straight year, reports Time, Norway has topped the United Nations’ quality-of-life list in its annual Human Development Index. Oh, come on, Norway. The competition isn’t even fun anymore. See Norwegians Have It Better Than You
  • Quantum mechanics is getting weirder and weirder. Experiments show that “reality is truly in the eye of the beholder.” See After a Short Delay, Quantum Mechanics Becomes Even Weirder in ScienceNOW

Ice Lantern

By Scott London — December 9, 2010

As Oslo readies for the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony tomorrow, the city is full of luminaries. Most of them fall in the category of international celebrities, politicians and dignitaries of various kinds. But tonight I was taken in by a different kind of luminary, the sort that illuminates your path on a cold night.

My Norwegian friend had invited me over for dinner. He lives in a quiet hamlet on a peninsula a half-hour’s boat ride from downtown Oslo. As we came up to his house, his wife had put out candles to light our way. They were protected from the freezing winds by lanterns made entirely of ice.

The Creative Community

By Scott London — November 11, 2010

In this conversation with David Starkey, host of the Santa Barbara TV show “The Creative Community,” we talk about the Nobel Peace Prize, the art of interviewing, the state of journalism today, and a few other things. We also have a look at some of my photographs from Burning Man, the Salton Sea, and the recent Santa Barbara wildfires.

The Creative Community: Scott London from The Santa Barbara Channels.

Who Will Win the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize?

By Scott London — October 3, 2010

The winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and, as always, there is a lot of speculation about who will get it. After the Norwegian Nobel Committee surprised everyone last year by giving the prize to President Obama, many are wondering whether the five-member board will choose a more traditional peace laureate this year — a champion of human rights, perhaps, or a statesman with a well-established record of international peacemaking. But I’m not so sure.

Last year, I placed my bet on several Chinese dissidents I felt deserved the prize, most notably the jailed pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. Hu Jia, Sun Wenguang, Chen Guangcheng, and Gao Zhisheng also struck me as worthy candidates. 2009 was a fitting year for such a prize, I felt, since it was the 50th anniversary of the completion of China’s occupation of Tibet and the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Besides, the peace prize had never yet been given to someone from China.

This year, I again feel that those risking their life for the cause of greater human rights in China are eminently deserving of the award. And in fact, several high-profile individuals, including former Czech president Vaclav Havel, have stepped forward in support of Liu Xiaobo recently.

It would make for a risky choice on the part of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as China has made it clear that such a move on the Nobel Committee’s part would seriously damage relations between Beijing and Oslo. But, as we know, the committee has not shied away from that kind of controversy in the past.

But such a prize would seem, at least to me, less timely this year. There are also other worthy candidates. The committee will pick from a record 237 nominees (199 individuals and 38 organizations). The names on the list are a well-kept secret, but nominators sometimes make a point of going public with their recommendations.

We know that this year’s nominees include Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial, a prominent rights group she works with in Russia. The list also includes former Illinois Governor George Ryan, Brazilian human rights champion Abdias Nascimento, Guyana’s president Bharrat Jagdeo, Father Roy Bourgeois and School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), and Canada’s David Matas and David Kilgour, a lawyer and former MP who have campaigned for the Falun Gong and called attention to human rights abuses in China.

In addition, the Internet and Esperanto have both been nominated this year. Needless to say, it would be a long-shot if either of them were to win the award, even if it were possible — and I’m not sure it is — to make a reasonable case for why they deserve it.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, went on record last month saying that the 2010 prize promises to be an “exciting” one, and another “surprise choice.” He also said that the committee tends to think a little differently than many Nobel experts and journalists.

It’s partly for this reason that I believe the winner of this year’s award will be someone few people will have heard of. It may be a person working for peace in some unconventional way — a peace researcher such as Gene Sharp or Paul Collier, for example, or an investigative journalist like Malahat Nasibova.

Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the committee and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, has said for years that peacemaking takes many forms and that the traditional categories need to be expanded, and I agree with that. In the early days, the peace prize went primarily to statesmen, mediators, international lawyers, and leaders of the organized peace movement. The Nobel Committee’s selection criteria have broadened over the years to include great humanitarians and human rights activitists.

But there are other types of efforts that also bear directly on the question of international peace and freedom — as we saw in 2004 and 2007 when the prize went to champions of environmental sustainability, and in 2006 when it was given to a “banker to the poor.”

I think — and I hope — that we’ll see the definition for what constitutes important peace work expanded still further in 2010.

Life’s Plan

By Scott London — August 28, 2010

SchopenhauerSchopenhauer, in a wonderful essay titled “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” observed that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your life, it can appear as if it had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that seemed random, accidental, or of no more than fleeting significance turn out to be indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggested that just as our dreams are composed by an aspect of ourselves of which we’re unconscious, or only dimly aware, so too our entire lives our composed by the will within us. And just as chance encounters can turn into lucky breaks and change the course of our lives, so too do we serve as unwitting agents of change in the lives of others. The whole thing works together like a great big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. As Schopenhauer saw it, our lives are like the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too, so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life that is the universal will in nature.

Our Visionary Moment

By Scott London — August 17, 2010

Here’s a tough question: What does it mean to be a visionary? Here’s an even tougher challenge: Give your answer in 100 words or less.

A few years ago, British author and philanthropist William Murtha invited me (and about 200 others) to do just that for a book he was writing. He also asked us to name five books that have profoundly influenced our thinking.

100 Words - A Book by William MurthaI reflected on it for several days. It seemed to me that our world is sorely in need of visionaries, yet most of us don’t know how to be one. We’re confused by appearances. We traffic in intellectual constructs and abstract formulations, but we forget to look within, to our own source of truth. We neglect the authority of our deepest knowing.

To be a visionary meant nothing, I felt, unless it involved looking beyond appearances to the essence of things. To be a visionary means perceiving with the heart — taking our cues from within and holding fast to that truth even, and perhaps especially, when the culture seems to contradict it at every turn.

This certainly seemed to be one of the common characteristics of the visionaries I have known and worked with as a journalist.

I remembered a line from the great British scientist Jacob Bronowski: “In every age there is a turning-point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world,” he wrote. “Each culture tries to fix its visionary moment, when it is transformed by a new conception either of nature or of man.” It was my sense, then as now, that for those of us living in the West, this is our unique and visionary moment as a culture.

In the end, I sent Murtha 100 words on the subject of discovering our unique genius.

Now his book is out. It’s called 100 Words: Two Hundred Visionaries Share Their Hope For the Future and includes contributions from a host of remarkable people. They include Jane Goodall, Alice Walker, Angeles Arrien, Bill Drayton, Lynne Twist, Frances Moore Lappe, Julia Butterfly Hill, Ben Okri, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and many others.

Murtha calls them creative souls, passionate activists, way-showers, and doers who are paving the way for all of us.

He says the book represents “a testament to the hopes, resilience, courage, and life-message of the visionaries. This is their story. And best of all, their uplifting and courageous stories clearly demonstrate much of what is going right in the world.”

If you happen to be in Santa Barbara on August 15, 2010, please consider coming to a special book signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore from 3:00-5:00 p.m. I’ll be joined by fellow contributors Noah benShea, Barbara Fields, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and C. Jean Wiedemann. Chaucer’s is generously donating 10 percent of the proceeds to the nonprofits of the contributors.

Five Contributors to William Murtha's 100 Words

Five of the people featured in William Murtha's "100 Words: Two Hundred Visionaries Share Their Hope for the Future" appeared at a book signing at Chaucer's Bookstore in Santa Barbara, California, on August 15, 2010. From left to right: Scott London, Barbara Fields, Noah benShea, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and Jean Wiedemann. (Photo by Alka Arora.)

Links and further information

  • Sharing Their Hope” by Karna Hughes, Santa Barbara News-Press, August 15, 2010
  • Additional photos from the book signing at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara
  • Five Books I Love — A blog entry about the 5 titles I selected for 100 Words
  • Order 100 Words from

The Catchphrasing of Ideas

By Scott London — June 15, 2010

It’s remarkable how quickly organizations seize on words like “innovative” and “entrepreneurial” to describe efforts that are anything but.

A Butterfly Emerges

By Scott London — May 14, 2010

Yesterday I witnessed the emergence of a monarch butterfly in my backyard. It was a stirring experience. A month ago, I had noticed several caterpillars gorging themselves on a milkweed plant in our garden. After fattening up and devouring every last leaf of the plant, the caterpillars all disappeared. Later I found that one of them had made its way to the top of a vine alongside our kitchen window. After about a day or two, it attached itself to a branch of the vine, turned upside down, and began a monthlong metamorphosis.

I didn’t see the caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, but the following morning I found it hanging on the vine. The bright green pupa was cleverly disguised and hard to spot among the green leaves.

Three and a half weeks went by without any activity. Finally, I noticed that the chrysalis began to shift from a bright green to a dark brown color. I could make out the faint pattern of monarch wings through the skin.

In a matter of a few hours, the pupa became transparent as the insect began to separate itself from the skin.

The wings were now clearly visible through the delicate husk.

In less than two hours, the chrysalis had become virtually transparent.

Suddenly it cracked open.

In a matter of seconds, the creature began to ease out of the enclosure.

The butterfly unfurled as it descended out of the chrysalis.

The camera data on these photos shows that the exposures were taken mere seconds apart. The emergence took less than a minute.

Here the butterfly reaches it’s legs out of the pupa, grabs on, and in one swift movement eases itself completely into the open.

The wings were soft, wet and rumpled. It took a few minutes for them fully straighten out.

Here the newborn butterfly spent several minutes testing its equipment: moving its wings and curling and uncurling its proboscis, or antannae.

As the wings slowly straightened out, the butterfly made its way up to the branch of the vine.

Here the full splendor of the new female monarch was on display. It stayed in the same position, motionless, overnight. Later the next morning it finally took its first flight, fluttering off to a nearby rose bush.

The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly took 28 days.

Five Things I Love About Twitter

By Scott London — April 23, 2010

Huston SmithThe traditional media have not always been kind to Twitter. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed, with her customary grandiloquence, that she would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over her and red ants eat out her eyes than open a Twitter account.

In a commentary in the Washington Post titled “The Tedium is the Message,” Jeanne McManus asked: “Is it just me or isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that if I’m scrambling an egg, you’ll want to know about it?” Sorry, she said, “I don’t want to hear about how you got a bad case of athlete’s foot or learn the details of your knee being drained.”

Fair enough. As a blogging platform, one limited to posts of just 140 characters, it’s true that Twitter is sometimes shallow, often self-referential, and occasionally outright narcissistic. It’s obsessed with celebrities, rife with rumors and half-truths, and prone to hype and hysteria. So the critics have a point.

But what the old-world commentators and traditional news media have generally missed about the Twitter phenomenon is that it represents something rather remarkable — a real-time, truly interactive global source of bite-sized information. As a medium, Twitter has given us an altogether new way to disseminate, share, and interact with information.

I joined Twitter exactly two years ago. I was hardly an early adopter, and I’ve never been a heavy user. Yet I’ve come to love the platform.

I’m as guilty as the next person of tweeting about the banalities of daily life. Just a few days I go, I posted this:

Sooner or later we all break down and tweet about what we ate for breakfast. Here goes. Today I had an amazing omelette with ratatouille.

Okay, I’m not proud of that one. I’ve also been given to reposting misattributed quotes, like this one:

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
— Dale Carnegie

That line was actually penned by Benjamin Franklin, not Dale Carnegie. I should have checked the source before posting.

And on more than a few occasions I’ve posted broken links, left out essential quotation marks, and changed people’s words around to make them fit.

Despite these faux pas, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Twitter and have often marveled at how powerful it can be. Here are five things I love about it.

1. Tracking news in real time

First, it’s an unparalleled medium for keeping your ear to the ground on just about any subject. As a journalist, Twitter has become my secret weapon for quickly learning about the latest developments on a wide range of fronts. Saving searches as RSS feeds, for example, is a way to easily track changes in fields you care about.

For example, I use Twitter to keep tabs of who might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize each year. The Twitter search Nobel Peace” http often generates better results than a Google web or news search by giving me actual links to webpages that contain the words “Nobel Peace.” And it does so in real-time.

2. Bypassing the gatekeepers

Second, it’s a powerful way to quickly share important news and information. We know from the countless news stories that have broken thanks to Twitter — from protests in Tehran to irregularities in the Ukrainian presidential election to the famous photo of US Airways flight #1549 floating in the Hudson River — that it can be a lifeline for people, especially those who may be silenced or oppressed, or who find themselves in some type of emergency.

3. Giving and getting instant feedback

Third, it’s an extraordinary way of sending and receiving instant feedback. One of the most powerful uses of Twitter, I’ve found, is as a means of monitoring reactions to ongoing events. Take the presidential debates during the 2008 elections, for example. There was no place better than Twitter to turn for instant analysis of what was being said. The same was true for the Academy Awards. Even the recent TED conference in Long Beach was made that much more interesting by scanning people’s immediate reactions on Twitter.

But public events are not the only way to post and read feedback. Even in smaller settings — academic conferences, say, or film festivals — Twitter can be a great way for groups to communicate with one another. It’s the go-to source for, say, posting follow-up questions, correcting factual errors, or reporting on last-minute schedule changes.

4. Keeping people posted

Fourth, it’s an efficient way of keeping friends and contacts up-to-date. When a wildfire broke out in the hills above Santa Barbara, where I live, I was inundated with calls and e-mails from people concerned about our safety. I found that Twitter was the most efficient way of keeping everybody informed and up-to-date.

I know others who have done the same when they are about to undergo surgical procedures, travel to remote or dangerous places, or take part in some special event where it’s simply not practical to send out individual e-mails or text messages. Many people prefer tweets to Facebook status updates, myself included, though more and more people now link the two so that both accounts are updated simultaneously.

5. Edifying, provoking and inspiring

Finally — and here I have to confess to a personal bias for information that edifes and inspires — I find Twitter a great source for sharing thought-provoking quotes, valuable observations, and little gems of wisdom. Of the 700-plus people that I follow, about two dozen or so constantly impress me with their brilliance, insight, wit, and amusing way with words. I consider some of them to be bona fide poets, others masters of the quotidian aperçu or the wise aphorism. I never like to miss a single tweet of theirs, even though I sometimes go for a whole day or more without logging in to Twitter. And just as I like to read a beautifully-crafted tweet, I love the challenge of parsing my own — especially if it means crystallizing some insight or rendering an observation into a succinct line of prose. In that sense, the satisfactions of Twitter are not unlike those of a crossword puzzle or a good game of Scrabble.

I recently read that Twitter is continuing to add 300,000 new accounts per day. The number is misleading. While there are no doubt a few late arrivals, many of the newcomers are marketers trying to use Twitter to turn a profit. But as the platform continues to grow and evolve, I believe more and more people will come to recognize that the real value of Twitter lies not in its commercial applications, but rather as a means of sharing information, engaging in dialogue, and creating new knowledge together.

Over the past two years, I’ve posted over 1,200 tweets. Here’s a baker’s dozen:

Google the word “change” and the first result is a link to the White House. How dreary, “change” has become a euphemism for the status quo.

I don’t believe in paying your dues, but sometimes it’s the only way to overcome self-doubt or a lingering belief that you’re a charlatan.

Someone once called me a social critic. I hate that term. I want to be known by what I praise and celebrate, not what I review and critique.

Truth is kind, but rarely gentle.

We cling to our point of view as if everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like fall and winter, they come and go.

If I were given the chance to live my life over, I’d repeat the same mistakes, only sooner.

It’s not enough to be merely intelligent. Many intelligent people are aimless and discontent. We’ve got to be intelligent and inspired.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of spiritual people who lack a sense of humor.

Creativity is not about inventing new ideas so much as violating the boundaries between those ideas and concepts we already take for granted.

People often talk about “overcoming” or “conquering” their problems. But I think it’s truer to say we outgrow them.

A book worth writing: “How To Be a Friend and Stop Trying to Influence People”

I used to think I could get by on smarts alone. It was a blow to discover how wrong I was…. And to find I wasn’t that smart to begin with.

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters you read on Twitter.

You can follow me me on Twitter at

The Joy of Service

By Scott London — March 24, 2010

A decade ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Laura Huxley, widow of the great British novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley. I spent several afternoons at her house in the Hollywood Hills.

We discussed her life with Aldous, her charity work on behalf of children, her frustrations with traditional psychotherapy, and, not least, her thoughts on death — a subject she said was impossible to avoid at her age (she was in her late 80s at the time). The conversations were eventually edited and broadcast on the radio.

As I was about to leave on the final day of our talks, she read me a short verse from Rabindranath Tagore. I was touched by it and scribbled it down on a small piece of paper. I tucked the note into my pocket and promptly forgot about it.

That was ten years ago. Today I rediscovered the scrap of paper in an old box. It was like finding a forgotten jewel.

Tagore’s lines are elegant in their simplicity, yet profound in their meaning. For Laura, they were words to live by.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.

Rethinking the Term “Nonprofit”

By Scott London — January 21, 2010

“Nonprofit.” It’s a curious word. It doesn’t tell us what it is, but it tells us what it’s not.

Given that the term has come to define a vast sector of American society — one that encompasses more than 1.5 million organizations and accounts for some 10 percent of the nation’s GDP — it would seem we could come up with a better phrase, or at least one that’s more descriptive.

The trouble is that many of the ideas put forward as an alternative simply miss the mark. Take, for example, the “voluntary sector.” The word accurately describes the activities of many charities, yes, but these organizations represent just a fraction of the total number of nonprofits in the U.S. And besides, the word implies that all those who work in the for-profit sector somehow do so involuntarily.

Other examples include the “third sector” and the “independent sector.” Hildy Gottlieb, director of the Community-Driven Institute, has made a compelling case for the term “community-benefit sector.” In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Dan Pallotta pitched the term “humanity sector.” And in an article some months ago in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Suzanne Perry suggested the “delta” sector.

Part of the reason we’re stuck with the term “nonprofit,” I believe, is because the field is so conceptually ambiguous. Much of what falls under the rubric of the nonprofit sector does not actually involve social service, community benefit, or even doing good. There are many nonprofits that are advocacy-driven, faith-based, or politically motivated, even though their tax-exempt status would suggest they are serving the public interest in some way.

In the academic literature, the field is often described as “civil society” or “the public sphere,” suggesting a kind of middle ground between public and private, between government and the free market. I realize that these terms encompass more than just nonprofit organizations (including, as they do, churches, neighborhood associations, book clubs, and the like). But they get closer, I think, to the real sphere of activity we’re talking about here.

These terms also avoid the unhelpful do-gooder connotations of terms like “the community benefit sector” and “the humanity sector.”

I prefer the term “civic sector,” or what the organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public refers to as “the citizen sector.” Both of these terms put ordinary people — citizens — at the center of the equation (as distinct from business and government). And as I see it, that’s really what this burgeoning sector is all about: the role of ordinary individuals, people like you and me, in inspiring new solutions, creating change, and making a real impact.

See also: