It’s been a year since Stanford Social Innovation Review and Independent Sector completed the series “Civil Society for the 21st Century.” The series wasn’t conceived as a book, but when I read it that way, I’m filled with a kind of clear-eyed hope. Yes, American civil society has its shortcomings and its blind spots, but it is a living thing that grows and evolves.
For the past 50 years or so, the trend has been to tear down the systemic barriers that discouraged so many people from participating in civil society based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, and more. The barriers have not gone away, but I believe they are lower than ever before, and as a result we see unparalleled diversity among those actively engaged in civil society through giving, voting, volunteering, and organizing.
Civil Society for the 21st Century
Difference is a good thing, but it’s also complex by definition. We spend decades tearing down walls to include more voices and viewpoints in civil society, and only then does the truly hard work begin. If civil society is “private action in pursuit of the public good,” then the definition of “good” must necessarily shift each time we expand our concept of the “public.” We innately know what’s good for the groups we identify with, but a diverse civil society asks us to consider other identities and other “goods”—and that can be exhausting.
We get tired of tearing down walls (or defending them, for that matter). We get tired of explaining ourselves and justifying our views. We get tired of trying to understand those who are “other” in appearance or identity or belief. Managing all of this difference can be exhausting, and so there’s a strong temptation on all sides to retreat to our tribes, point fingers, draw lines, make assumptions, and create a list of enemies.
Civil society, in other words, can start to verge into civil war. If you simply read the headlines with no sense of perspective, you might think that’s where we are today. And so, we publish this e-book to offer fresh perspectives on civil society and a reminder that despite a flawed history, American civil society has always managed its growing pains and emerged stronger as a result.
Everything Old Is New Again
Throughout the series we offer perspectives that harken back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but in this concluding essay, I’d like to shorten that perspective a bit to discuss how civil society has weathered more recent storms—storms that many of us have experienced firsthand. I’ll start with a lengthy quote that was a revelation to me:
Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all…Blind belief in one’s cause and a low view of the morality of other Americans—these seem mild failings. But they are the soil in which ranker weeds take root—political lunacy, terrorism, and the deep, destructive cleavages that paralyze a society.
There used to be only a few chronically angry people in our national life. Today all seem caught up in mutual recriminations – [black] and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove, Democrat and Republican, labor and management, North and South, young and old…
Extremists of the right and the left work with purposeful enthusiasm to deepen our suspicion and fear of one another and to loosen the bonds that hold society together. The trouble, of course, is that they may succeed in pulling society apart. And will anyone really know how to put it back together again?
The cohesiveness of a society, the commitment of large numbers of people to live together and work together, is a fairly mysterious thing. We don’t know what makes it happen. If it breaks down, we don’t know how we might go about repairing it.
Some might say, “What’s so interesting about that? I read essentially the same editorial at least once a week in every major paper.” But this quote was penned by John Gardner, the co-founder of Independent Sector, nearly 50 years ago in his 1968 book No Easy Victories.
It’s encouraging for me to be reminded that today’s problems aren’t really new, even if they are expressed differently or take a different form. And it’s encouraging to me that Gardner could be so clear-eyed about the difficulties and dangers, and yet still be a fighter, a builder, a changemaker, and an optimist. After discussing the forces that threatened to tear society apart, here are the final words that he penned in No Easy Victories:
We built this complex, dynamic society, and we can make it serve our purposes. We designed this technological civilization, and we can manage it for our own benefit. If we can build organizations, we can make them serve the individual.
To do this takes a commitment of the mind and heart—as it always did. If we make that commitment, this society will more and more come to be what it was always meant to be: a fit place for the human being to grow and flourish.
The book—and Gardner’s entire life—were about strengthening and rationalizing the institutions that could improve the lives of individuals, knit people together, and make the world a better place. He founded Independent Sector because he believed that civil society was just as important as government and business in advancing that vision of a better world.
But today, there are signs that maybe that vision is not so widely shared. Independent Sector is partnering with Edelman to refine their well-known Edelman Trust Barometer to fully measure and analyze what drives trust or distrust in civil society. The findings, however, are not always encouraging. For instance, when Edelman asked people in the United States: “Which one of the following institutions do you trust the most to lead the world into a better future?”
- Only 9 percent cited the nonprofit sector
- Only 11 percent cited government
- Only 18 percent cited business
- And 35 percent—a plurality of respondents—said “None of the above”
That’s a pretty bleak view. But I wonder, how different the results might be if we polled SSIR readers. I’m not sure that even those of us working in the nonprofit sector see our sector leading the way to a better world. We keep talking about division and cynicism and polarization as if those are external problems that need fixing before we can achieve our respective missions. But here’s the thing about civil society: It isn’t external. It isn’t other. It’s us, all of us who occupy the space between business and government, all of us who do what we can to create better communities and a better world. So when people express a lack of trust in civil society, they are essentially saying that they themselves feel unable or inadequate to lead the way to a better world.
That kind of pessimism is at odds with the optimism of the 1970s and 80s, when our sector was just discovering itself and coming into its own. What has happened over the past 40 years that might explain this change? Like any big problem, there’s no one answer, but let me offer an important contributing factor: The individuals in civil society feel disconnected from the institutions of civil society.
We discovered this a couple of years ago when we started organizing for Upswell LA. One of our first steps was to invite community activists and community stakeholders to a meeting in Skid Row where we laid out the vision for a three-day national convening that was deeply rooted in community. We asked these activists for their input, and their overwhelming response was: “Who are you, why are you coming into our backyard, and what difference can you possibly make?” We represented institutional civil society, and the community said to us, essentially, “We don’t know you, we don’t trust you, and we’re not sure that we need you.”
Repairing the Disconnect
Even as institutional civil society grows increasingly disconnected from communities, community members are becoming more connected to each other thanks to social media and other technologies. As they gain self-awareness and critical mass, communities are taking up their rightful role in civil society—making their voices heard and expecting real input into decisions that institutions often make on their behalf. There is a clear clarion call for institutional leaders to pay close attention to two things that communities are demanding:
- Power – To borrow the language of my friend Henry Timms, “Old Power” or establishment organizations will only thrive and survive when they find ways to partner authentically with community-based “New Power” drivers of change. Who is at the table and what actual power do they have to influence the allocation of community resources? These questions have the potential to fundamentally disrupt the work of Old Power nonprofits, including membership associations like Independent Sector (IS). While the financial support of members is an important way to sustain IS’s operations, it has over the years evolved into conversations about individual member value and ROI (return on investment) linked to dues. Over time these calculations eclipsed IS’s commitment to be aggressively engaged with the widest range of civil society leaders and institutions. Instead, the power to shape policy and name the important issues of the day became limited to those who could afford to pay dues. The IS board has courageously taken on this issue, and others will need to do the same in order to shift power to the broader community, where it belongs.
- Equity – Institutional civil society needs to analyze and accept that our power was built in part—sometimes in large part—within inequitable systems. Most of us operate within inequitable organizations and all of us operate within an inequitable system. So the work of equity is both inward facing and outward facing: We have to address equity within our organizations and at the same time build it into the work we do in the world. Equity is a posture, a disposition, a tenacious commitment. Do all people have what they need to fully flourish? That posture is universal, but in the American context – given our history of slavery and Native genocide – you can’t promote equity without taking on racial equity, specifically.
But we can’t simply name these things and think that our work is done. For the institutions of civil society, the task of devolving power to the community and adopting a racial equity lens in all that we do will be difficult and messy. Let me give you another example, this time from Upswell Chicago where we worked with the leaders of the local nonprofit establishment to help define and design a racial equity framework in housing. This process was driven entirely by our partners, and we spent months building consensus around the vision and the process for such a framework, including a rather elaborate plan for focus groups organized and led by community organizers who had deep neighborhood roots. But then, just on the eve of our first focus group, one of our community partners said, “Wait a minute, we work in the Hispanic community and what we see here is a plan focused on and architected by the black community.”
That was a moment of reckoning for us, and many of us lost some sleep as we scrambled to make things right. But throughout that process, I learned that four essential character qualities are needed as the institutions of civil society seek to rebuild trust with individuals and communities in civil society:
- Humility – We looked at the plan for housing equity in Chicago again, swallowed our pride, and said, “You know what, you’re right. We need to re-think and re-design.” When you try to foster a conversation rooted in equity, you have to start with the assumption that there’s a lot you don’t know and that the goal of the conversation is mutual learning and growth. And then you have to be willing to change and adjust to move towards greater equity.
- Transparency – We decided to write about the journey in real time, trying to give a warts-and-all view of what it looks like to do this work. We shared the setbacks with our funders and our followers. For those critics who pointed out our blind spots, we invited them to share their frustrations with our audience, in their own words. It’s painful to be transparent about your shortcomings, but it’s essential to building trust.
- Grace – This is difficult work for everyone, and we have to be gentle with each other. In this particular case, our community partners showed grace when they accepted a national actor as a partner in exploring what a racial equity framework might look like. Fully aware that other institutional actors in the past made promises to the community that they couldn’t fulfill, our partners were willing yet again to take up this work. That’s grace, and it’s crucial.
- Patience – We once hoped to have a racial equity framework ready for unveiling at Upswell Chicago in mid-November, 2019, but instead what we have is a work very much in progress. And that’s probably a parable, of sorts: The work of sharing power and turning the curve on equity has to be done urgently, but it can’t be done quickly. It’s going to be a work in progress for a long time. But a work in progress is still progress, and that’s what matters.
Looking to the Future
Today there are powerful cultural changes taking place in civil society. The birthing process is painful but also beautiful and full of potential. If we as a sector can model how to authentically share power and create equity, imagine what that might mean for:
- The future of the planet – We are facing a clarion call, an existential moment. None of us can be disconnected from the environmental crisis, and we in civil society must wrestle with our role. Regardless of how pristine our theory of change may be around a particular mission, we must be sure at the very least that our work doesn’t exacerbate the crisis. Ideally we can go further and ask how each of our organizations might contribute to mitigating the crisis, even if our primary mission area seems far removed from climate change. The future of the planet should be woven into the core mission of every civil society institution.
- The future of democracy – In the United States, democracy is the way in which communities come together to wrestle and progress. We can’t get to societal solutions around anything—especially climate—without the democratic institutions that help get us there. We used to presume that democracy was a given in our theory of change. Now it looks to be stalled or even broken, requiring us to address it directly. But I would caution that the work of strengthening democratic institutions requires some difficult questions about our values and how we live them. Take voter registration for instance: If we say that’s something we value, but we work to support voter registration only in targeted Red or Blue areas, then we might actually be contributing to the problem and further eroding trust.
To sum up my argument: If we as a nonprofit sector can figure out how to share power and create equity in such a way that more individuals begin to put their trust in the institutions of civil society and feel connected to those institutions, then we just might be able to ensure the future of the planet and the future of democracy.
I realize that may sound unrealistic or even Pollyannaish, but I would argue that’s exactly the kind of optimism that we need at this moment in history. We have to view our sector from the perspective of its assets and strengths, and to be able to then tell that story better. We have to be honest about the trends we are facing but view them in terms of potential, not problems. We have to recognize that the role of civil society is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy: We can only accomplish as much as we believe we can accomplish.
At the risk of hagiography, let me come back one more time to John Gardner. More than 30 years after No Easy Victories was published he wrote the foreword for the book Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy. He’s near the end of his life now, he’s seen massive social and political changes, he’s seen problems morph and multiply even as the nonprofit sector has enjoyed unprecedented growth—and yet through it all, he maintains the optimism that marks a true changemaker:
Societies that keep their values alive do so not by escaping the process of decay but by powerful processes of regeneration. That we have failed and fumbled in some of our attempts to achieve our ideals is obvious. But the great ideas still beckon – freedom, equality, justice, the release of human possibilities…
When the American spirit awakens it transforms worlds. But it does not awaken without a challenge. Citizens need to understand that this moment in history does in fact present a challenge that demands the best that is in them…
We are capable of so much more than is now asked of us. The courage and spirit are there, poorly hidden beneath our surface pragmatism and self-indulgence, left somnolent by the moral indifference of modern life, waiting to be called forth when the moment comes.
I believe that’s a sentiment that Tocqueville himself would approve of. The challenges we face today are enormous, but the stakeholders in civil society are more numerous and more diverse than ever before. By emphasizing the values that have long bound us together, and by adopting the newer values of shared power and racial equity, we can restore the trust that allows civil society to flourish.