Of Charity and Term Limits

America’s political leaders recently considered closing some regulatory loopholes and forcing private foundations to distribute more of their money. Survey after survey shows that Americans view public charities with increasing skepticism. The independent sector — foundations and charities — feels besieged. Yet, by many accounts volunteering and individual giving are up; the sector is growing. What’s going on here?

There’s a lesson to be learned from politics in the 1990’s. Term limits — a bad idea whose time had come — were sweeping the nation. A major culprit was institutional smugness. In politics in the 1990’s, majorities of voters in nineteen states became fed up at what they perceived as arrogant power and reached for the nearest club that would give it its comeuppance. They picked term limits.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors ought to take the lesson of the last decade of the last century to heart. People nowadays mistrust large independent sector institutions because they seem unaccountable and somehow self-perpetuating. But those in the independent sector world do not seem to understand why. Rather than admit the real problem, they have mounted “branding campaigns,” or taken to offering political arguments about the myriad drawbacks of this proposal or that counterproposal. The sector has mounted influence campaigns and issued talking points. It has circled the wagons.

Seldom does one hear a voice calling for a real self-examination, one that would ask questions like: “Are we funding in the right way, in a way that is true to the ideals of philanthropy? Are we truly looking to find the areas where the need is greatest? Are we seeking to help civic America, or are we primarily concerned with how things affect our own particular institutions? Do we approach our public as we would fellow citizens, or just as clients of our paternal largesse?”

It is the answers to these questions that will provide a roadmap back to a trusting partnership with American public life. Eye-catching logos, clever management strategies, and mission statements won’t do it.

There is an anti-philanthropy backlash now creeping across the nation. Foundations feel it, non-profits feel it, colleges and universities feel it. It is not born of questions about results or effectiveness. Nor is it borne of tough economic times — indeed, charitable giving by individuals is by some measures on the rise. No, the backlash is growing because people do not trust the institutions involved.

Voluntary, non-governmental efforts on behalf of the public good are what made and continue to make America great. Charity — in the best sense of the term — is a fundamental American value. That must not be let to whither.

Voters may hate Congress, but they seem to love their individual House member enough to re-elect her or him with typically easy margins. At the same time in the late 90’s that a citizen might have been voting to term-limit any and all political leadership, he or she was probably also voting to give their individual representative another two years.

And, like the individual members of Congress whom citizens seem inexplicably to love, Americans are ready, willing and able to volunteer and to donate funds to charitable causes even as they mistrust the institutional structures that enable it. People want to do their part locally. Look no further than your local — unbranded — homeless shelter. Chances are you will find neighbors volunteering there, and you may choose to join in too. Or maybe you are one of the many Americans who already have.

Meanwhile, the political arguments continue. While the most recent battle may be won, the independent sector is in danger of losing the war.

Five Civic Dangers

The other weekend I was at a meeting hosted by the National Civic League where we discussed the state of civic America. The question on the table was an open-ended: What are you seeing in America today? What civic trends are there?

There were many community-building types at the meeting, and they had a lot to say. There are many examples of progress — cities and regions coming together to solve common problems, individuals taking concrete steps for change, new programs creating new ways of interacting. There are also many brick walls — underfunding by philanthropic organizations, dearth of media coverage on issues that matter, policies implemented at the state and federal level that make community building excruciatingly difficult.

All this is true. But, while there is a lot of activity, as well as many barriers to progress, the question on the table really seemed to invite a deeper discussion. What are we seeing across efforts? What commonalities are there?

One commonality is that citizens seem to fall into the same traps as they try to move forward. There are five of these “civic dangers:”

Old reflexes. Often, when a group of citizens or network of civic groups comes together, they have done a great job of identifying the problems they want to work on — but they look to tried-and-true solutions that are neither tried nor true any longer. They see the need for new legislation, or a lobbying effort for different funding, or for a different kind of candidate to become elected. Reflexes like this diminish the role of citizens themselves. They are in fact anti-civic in nature insofar as they treat the solution to the problem as “over there,” in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own. It’s not every problem that has a uniquely civic solution, but the frequency with which I see groups lapse into traditional issue-politics thinking is troubling.

Doing too much. Other times, when groups begin to identify and work on public problems, they are enthused about the possibilities. They begin to want to solve the whole problem themselves, rather than focus on a piece that they can manage. This can kill momentum. A group of citizens I know in Toledo were single-handedly successful in changing the nature of a mayor’s race — but they are disappointed and dispirited because there are a host of other political ills in the city that they haven’t made a dent in. They’ve succeeded, but they think they’ve failed.

Leadership. In communities across America, people agree leadership is important. For over a decade, the word has been the touchstone for change: change always requires leaders. This has driven an increase in “leadership training” offerings. It seems every new initiative must have a leadership training component, and the outfits lining up to provide the training are myriad. But there’s leadership and then there’s leadership. It is a rare leadership training program that truly cultivates the civic sensibilities needed to stick with community change over the long haul. Many such programs are really only designed to replace an “old-boy” network with a “new-boy” network: the way things get done is still dependent on informal interactions of elites. The Harwood Institute, the Kettering Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are doing groundbreaking work in truly civic leadership and hopefully it will spread.

e-Fatuation. I have seen this one many times. Often as a group begins to gather momentum, they take notice of new technologies and begin to wonder how they can be used to further their efforts. They read about political campaigns that are said to use the Internet in new ways and see themselves benefiting from such an approach. But the tech-savvy and the neophyte alike seem to get blinded by the gadgetry. I call this e-fatuation. They see a website as an end in itself; they see bulletin board systems as a substitute for face-to-face interactions; they see increasing listerv subscribers as an indicator of effectiveness. As this happens, groups can easily lose sight of the humanity in which the technology is to be in service of. Or, they can lose sight of what they want to accomplish and the tail wags the dog. The result, as so many initiatives have shown, is a lot of online activity — and precious little change.

Finally, the meeting highlighted another troubling trend in American civic life: the professionalization of change agents. There are more and more consultants and organizations who specialize in bringing “technical assistance” to bear on public problems. On the one hand, this is a good thing: there is depth on the civic change bench. On the other hand, it’s very, very bad. It can rob citizens of the very participation they crave by setting the consultants up as “change experts,” letting everyone else off the hook. The hallmark of truly civic efforts is that citizens see themselves as holding the keys to the solution. To the extent that it is consultants — all well-meaning — who hold those keys, the citizens become mere clients and change gets driven by the hired and not the implicated.

These civic dangers are not civic destiny. They are simply things to watch out for as we try to make progress in common. Thankfully, these dangers carry with them the seeds of their own solution. Here is how I have seen groups of citizens avoid these civic traps:

Play politics as unusual. This relates not only to how you go about it but also to what you go after. Examples of this approach can be seen in many places — unusual coalitions coming together to push for change.

Take small steps. In Toledo, a group of citizen reformers think they’ve failed because all politics has not changed, they actually succeeded. Why? Their effort focused tightly on one political race in one place — and that did indeed change.

Uncover leadership, don’t train it. The Kellogg Foundation has an approach to leadership development that starts at the community level — and stays there. Rather than “identifying” (and so separating out) leaders, this approach develops leadership traits across the community, recognizing that on some issues, in some places certain people will emerge as leaders and others will follow. There is existing leadership already in communities, people who are already looked to as sources of information and as moral exemplars. Those people need to be nurtured, not anointed.

Stay human. Which barbershop should you go to? The messy one, of course: that’s the one where the barber hasn’t had time to sweep up because the haircuts are so good the customers are stacked two deep. Which community change efforts are really moving forward? The ones it’s hard to find unless you’re part of the community. Sure, you need a website so people can find you — but stop there. Don’t try to compete with AOL and create an “online community” if you don’t need one.

Go organic. The stable of “community change experts” is large; they all sell competing processes. One may use an “electronic town meeting” in order to get as many people into one room as possible; another may have a series of “community conversations” building on one another over time. The reality is that which route you go matters far less than who is involved and why. So, shop carefully for your expert. Do they like people and want to help them move forward? Or, are they policy wonks preaching “good government?” Both are needed — but most communities need someone on their side, as opposed to someone using them to achieve an ideological end.

These are by no means the only pitfalls that might be encountered, nor the complete list of must-dos. They are only among the most common. As social entrepreneurship and citizen engagement becomes more widespread, the danger that group after group will hit a brick wall grows.

But, with some planning, those brick walls can be avoided and efforts to work for progress can thrive.