Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
April 12, 2023

Does the nonprofit sector need to rebrand itself?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas

Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Joan Grangenois-Thomas, principal of JGT Public Relations, about misconceptions surrounding the nonprofit sector and suggestions for shifting perspectives and language about the industry. 


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask a really big question, “Does the nonprofit sector need to rebrand itself? You know, many years ago the word “nonprofit” was actually on our Words to Avoid list. We will link to that in the show notes. If you haven’t read our Words to Avoid every year, it’s one of our most popular posts, if not our most popular blog post. We even put together a glossary recently, you can read for many years. But we’re going to talk about that word, we’re going to talk about the sector, we’re going to talk about many things today with a very special guest, Joan Grangenois-Thomas. I actually worked with Joan, we were just calculating, almost 20 years ago, when we were both working at a company called Douglas Gould and Company. It was actually the place I came right before I was at Big Duck, another nonprofit consulting firm, so I’m very excited to now engage with Joan in this capacity.

Farra Trompeter: But let me tell you a little bit about her. Joan Grangenois-Thomas, she/her, is principal of JGT Public Relations, a nonprofit media relations consulting firm. She has leveraged her role both as a community advocate and public relations professional to develop opportunities for economic impact through the cross-section of social and political efforts. From 2021 to 2023, she served as the district director for the US House of Representative Mondaire Jones and was the first Black woman elected to the Board of Trustees in the Village of Port Chester, New York. Joan cares passionately about equal opportunity, social justice, and doing what’s right. She’s also very fun, and I loved working with her so I’m so excited for this conversation. Joan, welcome to the show.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Thank you. Thank you so much, Farra. I’m so glad to be here with you today.

Farra Trompeter: Well, I am glad to have you. So, a few weeks or months ago, I can’t remember exactly when it was. What is time these days?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yeah, yeah. “The before times.”

Farra Trompeter: Exactly. Joan and I were talking about our shared love of Maya Rudolph and the Apple TV show, Loot, which led us into a discussion about the portrayal of the nonprofit sector in pop culture, the media, and more. And so, let’s just start there with the show Loot. For those of you who’ve not seen the show, it’s described as, “After divorcing her husband of 20 years, Molly Novak must figure out what to do with her $87 billion settlement. She decides to re-engage with her charitable foundation and reconnect with the real world, finding herself along the way.”

Farra Trompeter: Joan, what do you think Loot gets right about the nonprofit sector and what does it get wrong?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Well, first of all, having to spend $87 billion is such a great problem to have.

Farra Trompeter: It really is.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: There are so many things I could do.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Anyway, so there were certainly some cringe moments as I was watching that show. But there were also moments where I had to sort of check myself, right? And my own ideas around nonprofits that I have. I think that it certainly was stereotypical in some ways. Like, just for example, the pomp and circumstance of the big dinners, you know, the galas that happen, right? And certainly, we know that that exists in the nonprofit world at certain levels for certain organizations, but there’s also the paper plate events, right? And I would love to see more of that and a balance of that on the show. What do you think?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I mean, the whole, when she didn’t even realize she had a foundation, and then she goes into

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: That.

Farra Trompeter: …the foundation thinking, like, having no idea what it does and how it engages in the community, and I think she has this ridiculous idea for what should go in the goody bag. This was in, I think, the first episode.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yes.

Farra Trompeter: And just not realizing what it means to actually engage the community and listen to the community and not just enter into the community as an interloper and recommend what should happen. Which, unfortunately, we do see happen in the nonprofit sector.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Right, exactly. And so she thought it was like going into her closet to pick out what dress she was gonna wear.

Farra Trompeter: Right.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: And it is so much more than that. And so that, in some ways, you know, they got right. And you had mentioned, and we talked about Vu Le’s perception of Loot, which I so appreciated, right, because he always nails it in terms of ways that the show could certainly go deeper. Looking at some of the organizations that the foundation funds, and again, there were some things that they got right and some things that they got wrong, and I think absolutely one of the things that they got wrong was Sophia’s dressing Molly down in, I think, one of the first two episodes when Molly comes into the office to work. I don’t know if you remember that, but Sophia dressed her down to say, how dare you, you know, come in here, and that’s just not the reality of things. It’s the power dynamic that is actually there. And just recently, Vu Le’s, one of his more recent blogs talks about that power dynamic. That, sort of, putting funders up on a pedestal.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I would also just shout out another phenomenal actress, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who plays Sophia.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yes, for sure.

Farra Trompeter: Who I first fell in love with on the show, Pose, so…

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Awesome show. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Yes.

Farra Trompeter: We can talk about great TV, and in fact, Pose certainly has some connection to the nonprofit sector and talking about the early days of the ACT UP movement. So, lots of good things if you’re looking for reasons to watch TV, we will give them to you.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yeah.

Farra Trompeter: But yes, and a lot of appreciation for Vu’s content, and we will link to, specifically, his article about Loot and what it gets right and wrong about nonprofits and philanthropy and any other related posts that you’re mentioning, too, as we go.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yep, cool.

Farra Trompeter: Well, Joan, beyond recent TV shows, let’s actually talk about how nonprofits are portrayed in the media. So much of what you have done for your career is really look at media relations, public relations, you’ve done a lot of media training, so I know you get how journalists think and what they’re looking for. And I’m just curious, what are some ways you’ve seen the press characterize the overall sector or individual nonprofits?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: There are so many different types of nonprofits and I think, in most people’s minds, they are really thinking about sort of the charitable organizations that are the food distribution sites, you know, clothing, service-oriented, community center nonprofits. But there are also the other nonprofits that are sort of the more activist nonprofits that are really trying to push policy and change from that perspective, right? So, I think that there is a little too much focus, really, on sort of the charitable side of nonprofits, but it’s also written about in a deficit-oriented way. There are never enough funds, and there is this sort of desperation about nonprofits. And you know, again, we’ve had this conversation just about in terms of the definition of the phrase “nonprofit” and what that means, and I think that it comes from a place of deficit, it comes from a place of lacking that is true in many ways, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that for a minute, and I’ll get into some other stuff we were going to talk about. So when we were preparing for this conversation, you mentioned a recent discussion you had or that you overheard and were part of about the etymology of the word “nonprofit.” Really breaking down that “profit” is about progress, but when you throw “non” or “no” in front of it, it starts communicating that maybe nonprofit is about stagnation or failure. And I’m just curious if you could talk a little bit more about that?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yes, and so it negates the progress, right? The “no” negates it. So, there is this point of view that we’re all sort of battling for the same small piece of the pie and battling each other for funding. And it is a mindset that I think is not true. There’s a lot of folks out there doing a lot of great work and we need to start looking at this as progressive and successful. The amount of work and the sector of business that nonprofit is, is pretty big when you think about it in totality, all the nonprofits that are out there in the world. And when you think about all that the nonprofit sector represents in terms of output, the idea that it is nonprofit, the idea that it is not progressing and that it is not profitable, I think sticks in a lot of people’s minds. And that people who work in nonprofits are working because it’s just a passion and that they don’t mind that they don’t get paid much, but that’s absolutely not true. Folks who work in nonprofits should be able to earn wages that are consistent with what it means to live. Certainly in a community like Westchester, which we know is a very wealthy suburb, a very wealthy county, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, and it costs money to live here. And so folks who work at nonprofits shouldn’t have to earn less simply because of some idea that if you’re working at a nonprofit, that you should be doing this simply for the passion and not to be paid a living wage.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and just to put a point on the size of the sector, you know, I believe the nonprofit sector basically accounts for one in 10 jobs in the US workforce. So 10% of the economic engine of the United States is nonprofit organizations and staff, nonprofit jobs. And that number I think is from 2019, so it might even be bigger now.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Right.

Farra Trompeter: And that’s pretty sizable.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: It is sizable, and I think it needs to be looked at for the size that it is and respected in many ways, particularly by the business sector. It’s a huge sector in this country. It absolutely requires that we give it all of the love and the support that it requires. And again, the folks who work there work there, yes, because they have a passion, but they’re also working there to make a living.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And I know there are many people out there who observe that nonprofits are filling the void and providing services that are unfulfilled by the government.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Mm-hmm.

Farra Trompeter: And I’m curious if you think the relationship between how the government relies on nonprofits is healthy?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: That’s a great question. On the charitable side, I absolutely think that the government has come to rely too much on nonprofits and sort of just says, “Oh sure, you know, the nonprofit sector will take care of that,” but there are, as I said, also nonprofit organizations that are on the activist side. And in that instance, they are a good counterweight to the government, right, in terms of policies around housing and immigration reform and things like that, but I do think that the government has come to rely too much on nonprofits. And yes, society requires that we all work together to take care of those who are in need, but to some extent, I think it’s a little out of control, certainly and when you think about the amount of money that goes into government funding for nonprofits, it doesn’t have to be that way. I think we need to look at that a lot more closely, and I think that government needs to sort of take back more of that support that is provided.

Farra Trompeter: Now, before we wrap up, I want to go back to branding and the words we use. And I’ve also had conversations with people who’ve said the word “nonprofit,” again, accentuates what we’re not not-for-profit, literally, which can cause confusion in and of itself. I’ve seen some people move to terms like “for-purpose,” “for good,” “mission-driven,” et cetera. I’m curious, what do you think? Does the nonprofit sector need to rebrand itself?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: I think it can’t hurt to explore that idea. I mean, I think some of these other terms could work. Certainly, it’s, I think, worthy of doing a focus group to see what lands, but I think that it is about time that we look at that. And you know, I just want to make sure that I shout out a client of mine, Carola Bracco of Neighbors Link, cause I ran into her at that New York Media OpCon event, and we were talking about that. And it was really from her talking about this idea that we’re always coming from a deficit point of view, and when you look at the etymology of the word, you know, nonprofit means to not progress. So, just want to make sure I give her that shout-out. But I think that there are other ways. I mean, we’re looking at many things these days in terms of, “How do we talk about it? How do we frame it in a way that does a better job of defining what it is?” And I think it’s high time that we look at the nonprofit sector in a similar way.

Farra Trompeter: I agree.

Farra Trompeter: Well, it’s time for us to wrap things up.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Oh, no!

Farra Trompeter: I appreciated this as a really great thought starter.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Yes, I think so.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and if you’re out there and you’d like to connect with Joan or her company, you can visit her website at You can also follow her on LinkedIn, @grangenoisthomas, G-R-A-N-G-E-N-O-I-S-T-H-O-M-A-S, and on Twitter, @JoanGeeTee.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Get it?

Farra Trompeter: There you go. You know, and before we wrap things up, anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: I’ve just had a blast chatting with you. I always do, Farra. I think the work you do at Big Duck is awesome, and I want to congratulate you on moving to worker-owned. I think that’s really cool.

Farra Trompeter: And thank you. You do great work, too. I know we’ve had the chance to work with some organizations together, and I always appreciate our chance to collaborate. So, Joan, thank you, and everyone out there, thank you for listening. Have a lovely day.

Joan Grangenois-Thomas: Thank you, thank you.