Excuse Me, Do You Speak Non-Profit?

A beginner’s guide to sector buzzwords.

by Alexandra Schiffmann & Charlotte Carnehl, October 22, 2018
A beginner’s guide to sector buzzwords.

"Enabling changemakers and their respective ecosystems to form communities of practice that co-create a theory of change is the most sustainable way of achieving long-lasting impact."

Ok, we made this sentence up. However, if you are working in a non-profit organisation or social enterprise, many of these buzzwords may sound familiar.

Of course, sector specific language appears in any work environment. It provides a sense of unity and belonging to people working within a certain context. But since vocabulary is how we convey meaning, we need a shared understanding of what these terms actually mean.

Are you new to the field and puzzled by what exactly a ‘changemaker’ is and whether or not you could be one yourself? Did you always think an ecosystem had something to do with natural habitats only? Then you might want to start by reading this beginner’s guide, designed for everyone who wants to brush up their terminology.


Everybody is talking about it. Your colleagues, your boss, donors, partners — everyone wants (you) to have impact. Terms such as ‘impact-driven’, ‘high-impact’ or ‘positive impact’ are part of many mission statements in the sector. But what does this actually mean?

In literal terms, impacts are the long-term or indirect effects of your outcomes. But impacts are hard to measure since they are what we hope our efforts will accomplish and are often uncertain. It is probably due to these reasons that the word has become ambiguous on its own. Not everyone uses or understands ‘impact’ in the same way and measuring impact of altruistic actions is an entirely different story altogether. That’s all a bit confusing. But do not fret — the bottom line is that ‘impact’ implies a change brought about by some sort of action. And, whether positive or negative, at least that is something we can probably all agree on.


The traditional meaning of changemaker in English is actually ‘a person or thing that changes banknotes or coins for ones of smaller denominations.’ Obviously, this is not what professionals from the non-profit sector have in mind when talking about changemakers. In fact, the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka coined the term in recent years, meaning one who desires change in the world and, by gathering knowledge and resources, makes that change happen.

Words similar to changemaker: gamechanger, a visionary, a trendsetter, an upsetter (figurative), or an innovator.


Commons are products and resources (e.g. air, the oceans, the Internet) that are created, cared for and used in a shared way. Currently, commons can be understood as a concept based on equality and self-governance that is in conflict with the capitalist logic of commodities. Some of the core principles are: contribution instead of exchange; actual use instead of property; sharing all that you can; using all that you need. The practice of ‘commoning’ then demonstrates a shift in thinking from ‘you are on your own’ to ‘we are in this together.’


Co-creation means to create something together with others.

In their study, scholars C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy define co-creation as ‘the joint creation of values by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context’. Processes of co-creation are not only being used in the business context, but also in the public and non-profit realm. While in this context it is not about selling products, public and non-profit actors also have an interest that their policies, services, or programs add value to the lives of their stakeholders. By actively involving them in an innovation process through co-creation, organizations can gain a profound insight into their needs, which is crucial to create successful outcomes. The overall goals of a co-creation process are to improve the relationship with stakeholders and, ultimately, to increase the success rate of the offered services.

Entrepreneur & Intrapreneur

The term entrepreneur originally stems from the French word ‘entreprendre’ — ‘to undertake’. In the classical understanding, an entrepreneur is the founder and owner of a company. He or she holds the responsibility for the venture and, consequently, also the highest (financial) risk. Compared to any businessman, an entrepreneur is also characterized by a certain mindset, character, and attitude towards life capable of continuously bringing about innovation.

An intrapreneur, on the other hand, is an inside entrepreneur or an entrepreneur within a large organization. Intrapreneurs are oftentimes visionary employees assigned to work on a special idea or project. In doing this, intrapreneurs have the infrastructure and resources of the company at their disposal.

Theory of Change

Theory of Change, short ToC, describes a specific methodology or tool to develop solutions to complex social problems. You create a Theory of Change by setting a long-term goal and then working back from it to define all the preconditions (also called outcomes) that must be in place for this goal to occur. Then, you identify the interventions that your initiative will perform to create these preconditions. Since a Theory of Change outlines logical relationships between many single parts, it is predetermined to be mapped — a so called outcomes pathway can, for example, look like this.

Theory of Change
Theory of Change, short ToC, describes a specific methodology or tool to develop solutions to complex social problems.


‘Ecosystem’ sounds familiar from your biology classes? Makes sense: in ecological terms an ecosystem is usually defined as including ‘all of the living things (plants, animals and organisms) in a given area, interacting with each other, and also with their non-living environments (weather, earth, sun, soil, climate, atmosphere)’. The term has, however, been expanded to the non-profit context, generally referring to a complex network or interconnected systems. The underlying idea is that no organization exists in isolation; it affects others and is affected by others. Therefore, similarly to organisms in an ecosystem, an organization must be flexible and adaptable, constantly redefining its own niche, role and relationship to others in order to thrive.

Paradigm (shift)

A paradigm is our personal ‘map’ drawn by the influences and experiences in our lives which condition our understanding of the world. It lies at the heart of our attitudes and behaviors leading us to believe that we see the world objectively, when in reality we are viewing it through a specific lens.

A paradigm shift as a concept identified by American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn represents a fundamental change in the basic concepts and practices of a scientific discipline. The concept has been expanded to non-scientific contexts since the 1960s to describe a fundamental change in approach, underlying assumptions or perception of events.

Want more words?

The word you were looking for is not in our list? Check out this compilation by Social Good Stuff. Also: In 2016 The Chronicle of Philanthropy asked non-profit professionals to share their picks for the sector’s worst jargon. You can read some responses in this post or search #npjargon on twitter.


Alexandra Schiffmann & Charlotte Carnehl work for the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s International Alumni Center gGmbH (iac Berlin). Decoding sector buzzwords is one of their latest hobbies.