Must civil society organizations be not-for-profit?

A while back, I had an interesting meeting with Sandy Struss, a dynamic entrepreneur who I know from when we both worked with  Chalk Media

Sandy has Type 1 Diabetes, and felt there was a need for more community-building amongst Type 1 diabetics, and in particular, to for people to see, hear and read inspiring stories about people with the illness.   

She wants both to build can-do attitude in people who’ve been told that Type 1 diabetes can hold them back, and to generate better media awareness about how Type 1 and Type 2 are so different.

Initially when she was researching, putting together her business plan, and deciding how the organization would be structured, she planned on it being a nonprofit.  But in speaking to some people about available options, she learned about some of the comparative simplicity involved in setting up as a for-profit.   I’ve forgotten now what the arguments were that were passed on to her by another woman who’d been down this road (other than not having to have a Board of Directors), but they convinced her.

Either way, she was going to approach various potential sponsors who provide medications and such to diabetics, and pitch them on profile on the website, the podcast and whatever else, in exchange for funding.   Sandy could convince anyone of anything, and not surprisingly, these corporations came on board.

This also re-framed my thinking, and here’s how.

Civil society organizations, in my mind, are different from any other non-government organizations, charities or largely volunteer-driven organizations, because they are specifically trying to affect change, and often, change in policy.

Sandy wants change.   She got her provincial political rep. on board, and they got a meeting with the provincial health policy decision-maker.

Sandy’s diabetes medication is not covered by the government.  The government will fund a diabetes medication that is 30 years old, and not as good.    She has to pay for her medications and related appliances, on her own.  In Canada, that’s appalling, and Canadians who hear about this are appalled.  

Before the organization and website were even officially launched, the media heard about it.  I caught that on a radio station that was out asking people on the street what they thought, and they were outraged.

So this organization was created to effect change, to educate, to inspire, and to effect policy change. 

The organization is for-profit.

Can it still be a civil society organization?

Before, I would have said no.

But now I think, perhaps yes.

Okay, now I think no again. 

I’m arguing against myself.  Yes, a civil society organization pushes for change, and usually policy change.   But it’s really supposed to exist in the unaffiliated middle – not government, no, but also not private industry.  

I guess with profit as the dividing line, the other side is social innovation, or, in this case, social entrepreneurship.  Even when it’s pushing for policy change.

This company is called

It’s been interesting noticing the development of Centers (and Centres, and Institutes) for Social Innovation and Social Innovation Research and Social Enterprise and Centres for Social Entrepreneurship, and for Advancing Social Entrepreneurship, and for Social Justice, and Social Transformation, and Social Entrepreneurs, and Programs, and Research Institutes  and Research Centres and Networks of Scholars investigating things like Social Change or Socio-Cultural Change at various universities, in particular, but also other places, and also related publications and discussion forums and podcasts and funding competitions for social ventures.  

This small slice I’ve looked at here is largely North American, because that’s where I live, but it’d be interesting to see internationally, how many related centres and such have appeared just in the last five years or so.

I don’t know why this trend now, but I think it’s darned hopeful.


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