A few days ago, I read yet another in what seems a persistent churn of messages characterizing nonprofits as enslaved to operating in a state of continual scarcity and deficiency. I wonder when I see such missives how it is that the organizations and institutions comprising the highest level of society’s structured efforts at civic good repeatedly find themselves represented this way. Maybe perpetuating this old, tired trope works to hawk consulting, fundraising, technical assistance and training services. If that’s the case, the purveyors of these insufficiency myths demean myriad efforts of millions of people, paid and volunteer alike, whose daily devotion of time, energy and attention epitomize some of the richest aspirations of American social and civic life.
In the last week alone, I’ve participated in extending the strength of Community Partners to five groups – two established, three start-ups – whose very names speak to deep and searching societal ambitions and to the diversity of our society. Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. Hepatitis C Action Network. The Civics Center. The Human Campaign, publicizing the history of the Equal Rights Amendment struggle. Water Education for Latino Leaders.
The aims of these groups and thousands of others region-wide defy the market-hustling, fright-fanning of scarcity and deficiency. The teams spear-heading them have tapped into intertwined lines of the civic power grid that energize the core of human resolve and hope. Yes, fundraising success will in nearly all cases make a difference in how far and widely the groups’ leaders can advance their causes. But wolf-cries of insufficiency serve only to scramble and tamp the super-charged spark of the human impulse to rise up and tackle tough societal conditions.
I recently re-read Derek Barker’s compelling article – “The Colonization of Civil Society” – from a 2010 issue of Kettering Review published by the Dayton-based Kettering Foundation. Barker reminds us that civil society, of which nonprofits really comprise a relatively small part, represents the public-benefitting parts of our lives beyond private or family matters. His case supports the idea that, outside of our roles as economic players through work and as citizen voters, most of us strive to function to one degree or another in a place called civil society. Here, we sort through and solve local problems outside government mandates or economic incentives. It’s the place in which we all work to get along or get things done better than we ever could individually and alone. This place, Barker says, has grown obscure and muddled to us because “organizations in the civil sector are looking more and more like their government and corporate counterparts.”
Similar to Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Media and Big Tobacco, a vast swath of the American nonprofit sector lies at risk of being overtaken by a regime that diminishes human well-being as the highest of priorities, and substitutes price and supply competition that often destines the least among us to end up as market losers. By common consent under classic market capitalism, these three arenas – food, shelter and health care – are regarded not as basic rights, but as products and services for which most of us routinely engage in market battle. Where government programs and nonprofit charities enter into these three vast arenas and provide for those who lack the ability or resources to compete, a new monolith – call it Big Caring – may be emerging.
The systems that comprise Big Caring – among them food banks and food stamps, homeless programs and public housing, free or community clinics and public health agencies – are capitalism’s attempt at making up for authentic market failures. Those failures – an intolerable, persistent waste stream grinding away at human souls – consign at least 15 percent of the American population to the ravages of poverty and more people still to living at the waste stream’s rising margin.
What we do about this – if we actually ever intend on “justice for all” rather than for a lucky “most” – defines whether we can legitimately call ourselves a civil society. We might start, as David Leonhardt recently suggested in the New York Times, by looking at classic economic indicators like GDP, the stock market and employment, which we mistake for measures of human well-being. They fail to tell the whole story, concentrating on the affluent and not including and accounting for those laying flayed at the margins or mired on the margin's jagged edge.
Regimes like classic capitalism are not forgone historic conclusions or unalterable societal destinations, even though from the inside they certainly appear so. Among western industrialized democracies, America ranks surprisingly low as a caring society. The rise of Big Caring suggests it’s high time to question the regime’s fundamental underpinnings, consider the possible alternatives and gird ourselves to make the change ahead rather than just standing by mystified, mute and paralyzed.
Passage of Time II by Michael Himbeault (CC by 2.0)