By Christen Brandt & Tammy Tibbetts, founders of She’s the First, a nonprofit that supports girls who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school.

We all have words that make us feel undervalued and underestimated, even if they don’t bother other people. Maybe it’s being called “lucky” for getting a job you worked hard for or being referred to as a “girl” when you’re a woman.

As founders of a nonprofit, there’s one antiquated word that’s gotten under our skin. It’s one we’ve edited out of our own vocabulary, even though it’s used all the time by well-meaning, supportive people to describe for-purpose organizations like She’s the First.

We really, really hate being called a charity.

A Google search will tell you a charity is “an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need,” and yes, that’s what we are. But the definition suggests that giving is a one-way street. It connotes that one person with money, time, or resources gives it to another who is struggling to get by.

If you close your eyes and picture that exchange, who is the hero? Who is the helpless recipient? Is he or she wearing scraggly clothing, maybe holding out a cup for change, waiting on assistance to improve his or her life?

Society has ingrained these images in our minds, but they’re false ideas. The implication of the word “charity” is that the person who does the giving is making a sacrifice for nothing in return. They get the glory. This is a power dichotomy that we don’t accept — because it isn’t a true representation of how nonprofits work.

When you give to a nonprofit, you’ve likely worked hard to make that happen. To be sure, you deserve recognition. You’re playing an important part in this ecosystem of creating a better world.

There is another powerful part of the equation though, and it isn’t honored in the same way. On the other end of your donation are the people who are standing on the front lines of change. At She’s the First, those people are our STF Scholars. In 11 countries around the world, they’re earning scholarships to school and getting accepted to leadership and mentorship programs with the desire to improve their lives and communities. These are huge opportunities. The students have a shot to be the first in their families to graduate from high school, to attend college, get an internship, start their own business, and lead their community.

Those opportunities are real, but they come with some serious strings attached.

In the cultures and communities where we serve, when you give a girl the opportunity to be the first in her community to go to high school, you’re also asking that she be the one to stand up when others question why it should be her.

You’re asking her to take on the burden of being the oldest, unmarried woman in her family, with all of the stigma that is often attached to that.

You’re asking her to become the family’s main breadwinner and to navigate how to handle the family’s debts and financial challenges.

You’re asking her to carry all of the hopes of her family on her back, to be a changemaker whether those around her want change or not.

And she steps up.

When people engage in programs like these, they’re anything but the powerless recipients associated with “charity work.” The outcomes of their success make the world better for all of us. Investing in them is not purely selfless, and it’s not simply an opportunity or gift that we’re giving. We all have work to do, and we all have something to gain.

This is why don’t call ourselves a “charity,” and why you’ll hear us say nonprofit, for-purpose, or NGO (non-governmental organization). And in doing so, we aren’t trying to criticize word choice, so much as to encourage a broader world view. None of us are heroes for giving money away; we’re part of a multi-faceted movement. We know without your donations, STF Scholars wouldn’t be able to attend school or create the futures they want for themselves and for their families and communities. Likewise, if the students in our programs refused to pick up the baton and lead the charge, your donations would be useless in creating the world we all want to see.

We look at our efforts to make a difference in the context of what we do withforothers, rather than them, and we hope you’ll be there right alongside us. Everyone has a part to play. Together, we can do more than “charity.”

She’s the First is a nonprofit fighting gender inequality through education, by supporting girls who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school and training students everywhere to be global citizens. Our newest effort is through the STF Action Network, a mobile platform that anyone, anywhere can use to learn more about the issues affecting women and girls and then take concrete action. Try it out at action.shesthefirst.org.


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