Civic Engagement

Philanthropy and the Path of Least Resistance

January 28, 2010

Is there anything more frightening to foundations than democracy? I don’t mean the kind you pay for through projects, but the kind that enables people to participate in decisions that affect them, including decisions about philanthropy. If philanthropy is "private funding in the public interest," it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask that the public has some say in defining how its interests are identified and met. Yet there is no way they can do this at present.

Welcome to Philanthropy’s "Pandora"—A Land Free of Trade-Offs and Contradictions

January 27, 2010

Much of the "new philanthropy," it seems to me, inhabits a world like Pandora of Avatar—James Cameron’s new film that is now the biggest blockbuster of all time. Pandora is a place whose inhabitants live in perfect harmony with their environment, with no hint of conflict until those nasty corporate mercenaries start bulldozing their trees. It’s the same with philanthropists who see no contradiction between civil society and the market—between competition and cooperation, self-interest and sacrifice, social impact and the financial bottom line.

Why "Social Capital Markets" Could Be a Really Bad Idea

January 26, 2010

A common assumption of the "new philanthropy" is that "social capital markets" will separate effective from ineffective organizations by forcing nonprofits to compete with each other for scarce resources, allocated according to standardized criteria. I think it’s much more likely that important work in civil society will be marginalized, leading to less social change, not more. How come?

Should Civil Society Be Reduced to a Subset of the Market?

January 25, 2010

Over the past few years it’s become almost an article of faith that civil society—including philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector it supports—should operate on business principles, like rates-of-return, competition to weed out the weak, close supervision of the organizations you support, financial data as measures of success, and paying corporate salaries to the CEO.

The National Constitution Center and a Question

November 20, 2009

This week I was appointed President and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the museum and education center devoted to engaging Americans, especially young people, in being active and informed citizens of our constitutional democracy.
I could go on for some time about how great the place and its exhibits are—high-tech and interactive, historically astute, pedagogically sound, and incredibly beautiful. Suffice it to say if you haven’t been yet, you should come.

A Spark of Light in Texas

November 16, 2009

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a remarkable event—President Barack Obama joined President George H.W. Bush in College Station, Texas, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Points of Light movement, begun in 1989 with President Bush’s inauguration speech.
These leaders together created a poignant moment that felt charged with both historical import and timelessness, and they left several impressions worthy of reflection:

Get Out and Vote!

November 2, 2009

All across the nation, voters will be heading to the polls tomorrow. Although it’s not an election to compare with last year’s epic Presidential campaign, there are important races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and mayoral races in New York, Houston, Miami, and several other large cities. While it may not be the most important election in history, every election should be conducted vigorously. And nonprofit organizations should be central players in educating and organizing constituents to participate in elections.

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