Thinking critically about the terms: ‘members’ , ‘customers’, ‘users’ , and ‘clients’?

Over the last few weeks at COCo we’ve been hearing a lot about alternative organizational structures, from co-ops to collectives, to for-profit social economy projects. At the root of these various organizational forms are different understandings of the people that we work with.

Every community group has a different understanding of the people that make up the base of the work that we do and we all use different terms to describe who these people are. In community groups that are structured as social economy businesses the people that are the base of the work may be called ‘customers’. Community groups that are structured as co-ops or collectives may use the language of ‘members’. Many charities or non-profits may use the language of ‘clients’ or ‘users’. At COCo we’ve been thinking about where these different terms come from and the deeper implications they may have for our community work.

Tana Paddock, a past COCo staff member, has given these types of questions a lot of thought in her blog Organization Unbound. She and fellow blog creators Warren Nilson and Jonathan Glencross center their work around the idea of ‘expressive change’:

“Some of the most vibrant and socially catalytic organizations we have seen are places where there is a promising confusion about who is serving whom- schools where teachers learn and grow, food banks where staff and volunteers are nourished, hospitals where doctors are healed, social justice groups where activists are surprised to find their vision of a better world taking root in their own offices. These organizations are invoking the power of something we might call expressive change – a pattern of change rooted in who they are as much as in what they do. They ask themselves: “How can we become what we seek?”  Organization Unbound website

Organization Unbound often raises provocative questions about roles and relationships between different people that make-up the base of community groups. Do we ‘serve’ the people that we work with? Are their roles restricted to being users of our services? What about organizational structures that blur these lines by having ‘clients’ on their board or different categories of members that include funders and workers as well as users or volunteers? Clearly there is no single term that is the best fit for all community groups, but it may be worthwhile for us to stop for a moment and think critically about the deeper meaning of the terms that we use.

Recently at COCo we read a great article that has made us reflect critically on the language of ‘community sector’ and on the implications of thinking of our community groups as ‘service providers’ to ‘clients’:

“Community organizations have often shifted from organizing active participants in social struggle to creating services for ‘clients’. […] Quebec’s community sector has undergone a transformation. The 1960s saw a renewal of community, which acted in opposition to the state and corporate power. This opposition movement mobilized citizens and built alternatives, such as popular clinics and co-operatives. There has been a gradual shift since from a ‘community movement’ to a highly structured ‘community sector’, which has accelerated in the current period.” Aziz Choudry and Eric Shragge, Disciplining Dissent: NGOs and Community Organizations

At COCo’s upcoming summer retreat we will be taking some time to critically revisit some of the language in our mission statement such as ‘community sector’ and ‘ethnocultural’. We will also be deepening our understanding of what we mean by the term “member’. Stay-tuned for an update after the retreat!