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Philanthropy Isn’t Waiting for Politicians to Assign it a Role

September 16, 2012  • Jane Wales

Jane’s blog appeared in the September 16, 2012 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Reposted with permission. See the original posting here:

Philanthropy Isn’t Waiting for Politicians to Assign It a Role


Most Americans agree that the task of self-governance requires that we each do our part.


Government cannot solve all of our problems, no matter how essential it is in setting standards and carrying out our collective will. Nor can markets alone. Nor can the most inventive civic organizations and the philanthropies that support them.


Ours is a democracy; the management of shared challenges and the stewardship of shared resources require that we each play a role.


In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama spoke to the role of citizenship, attributing America’s successes to the choices each of us makes and the actions each of us takes in contributing to a larger shared community.


In his Tampa address, Governor Romney emphasized self-help and individual enterprise and used the Republican National Convention theme, “We built it,” to underscore the ways in which we create our own futures within the context of a free society. Gov. Romney emphasized individual liberty. President Obama spoke to shared community. And the policy prescriptions they offer are couched in those differing perspectives.


And so, when it comes to the social contract—the means by which we allocate responsibility and resources for the shared management task called governance—the country’s dominant political parties have offered competing visions of the role that government and each of us should play. And in presenting a clear distinction—a choice—each party seeks to make this election a referendum on the shape, nature, and financing of the social contract.


But to many, the dichotomy between liberty and community seems false. Our government has long encouraged, supported, and rewarded both commercial and social enterprise. And enterprise has always relied upon the infrastructure that governments provide. Moreover, the sorting out of governing responsibilities is neither new nor the sole province of the Republican or the Democratic parties; changing relationships are the hallmark of globalization. When change is so rapid as to be unsettling, the conversation gains renewed political salience. And so the candidates may be right to call the question.


Nonetheless, philanthropies and those they support are not waiting for an assignment of duties to play their problem-solving role. They continuously forge alliances among players from business, government, and nonprofits to achieve their social goals. And, in responding to the candidates’ challenge, they will take care to advance rather than undermine the combination of capacity and trust on which these alliances and any social contract must rely.


To them, the social contract is more fluid than it is contested. And they willingly embrace and expand their problem-solving role.


Working with the members of the Global Philanthropy Forum, a learning network of 750 donors and social investors at the cutting edge of change, I have seen upfront how so many donors, including those who came before them, are bold, strategic, and willing to take on complex social problems.


They seek collaborative, systemwide change. They apply their business acumen to their giving. And they measure and evaluate their impact. They are both architects and beneficiaries of the information age, and they want to see its benefits more evenly shared.


These strategic philanthropists do not seek to replace government. Nor do they seek to replace markets or to establish operating foundations that compete with nonprofit organizations. What they do seek is collaborative management among government, businesses, and nonprofits so that together they can tackle large societal problems and do so in ways that strengthen the ties that bind.


And so, rather than debate the division over labor, they assume it will be ever changing, with the mantle of leadership shifting from one to the other according to the task at hand.


They believe that collaboration is best when it captures the strengths of the participants, including:


·         the transparency, accountability, and capacity of democratic governments.

·         the efficiency and scale of business.

·         the agility, responsiveness, and ethical bearings of nonprofits.

·         and the risk appetite and long view of foundations and individual donors.


They embrace and test such innovations as “impact investments” in small enterprises that provide goods, services, and income-producing opportunities to the poor. They shadow the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s strategy of investing in private companies that undertake research and development into the diseases of the developing world, even promising to purchase the resulting drugs or vaccines in sufficient quantities to justify production.


Those that lead some of America’s best-known corporations, such as Wal-Mart, have made a commitment to buying products locally so as to advance the livelihoods of farmers and small businesses. Starbucks is experimenting with turning food waste into usable chemicals and bioplastics. And Intel has worked to strengthen nonprofits not only in the United States but also abroad where the company works so as to advance societal resilience in all its markets


Governments are also joining in, collaborating with business and nonprofits to work on the HERproject, an effort financed by the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to help local nonprofits bring women’s health education to factory workers making products for companies like H&M, Hewlett Packard, J.Crew, and Microsoft.


Through such arrangements, leaders from throughout society are stepping up to what they understand to be their responsibility in the social contract they are helping to define.


In her remarks at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said that the presidency does not change who you are, it reveals who you are. The same might be said about citizenship and the problem-solving role we play through our voting, volunteering, giving, and collaborating. As individuals, we are asked to reveal who we are—defining our role in a self-governing society, and beyond.


When it comes to getting things done, Americans take pride in being adaptive, agile, inventive, entrepreneurial—and steadfast. As philanthropists, activists, and citizens, we both affirm and pursue our problem-solving role.


The election may be about the competing visions of Governor Romney and President Obama. But, more to the point, elections are part of self-governance, and self-governance is about us. In the pursuit of shared management, it will be up to us not only to help build societal capacity but also to trust in one another’s ability and willingness to get the job done.


Because no matter what our view of the allocation of responsibility within society, trust is the collateral on which the social contract relies. Without it, we cannot succeed in doing those things we must do together.


On that, Americans can agree.