No More “Nice” Nonprofits!

Friday, June 1, 2007 (All day)

No one working in this city’s communities can afford to ignore the wider civic context swirling around their efforts. Take, for example, the leaders of a Los Angeles after-school program helping low-income kids enjoy the outdoors. This city’s poor neighborhoods have a disproportionate share of green spaces and parks compared to more affluent areas. Knowing that may not change the way the program leaders educate the kids, but it should sober them about the mission they’ve chosen to pursue. Unchanged, an open space deficit limits the future prospects of these kids to build any appreciation of nature at all.

A program that makes a relative few a bit savvier about the outdoors, however, changes nothing about the way city leaders set civic priorities. Sure, politicians and philanthropists will always be pleased to show up for a photo op with smiling students dipping their toes in the Los Angeles River. However, people who presume to acquaint kids with the places where we live, I argue, have a minimum of two non-negotiable obligations. First, they themselves must have more than a passing familiarity with politics, power and economics – all factors that result in de facto or deliberate decisions to ignore one group in favor of another. Second, they must stimulate children to authentic civic awareness – in kid-appropriate ways – and get them started on the path to active, informed citizenship.

Similarly, leaders in the arts can’t just teach kids music or theatre; they must demand and participate in sustained citywide dialogue leading to a coherent arts and cultural policy that compels civic and political leaders – and not just Eli Broad – to act, well, coherently. Health care providers aiding the uninsured cannot be content to pride themselves on delivering good primary or pre-natal care. They must own up to the vast inequity and dysfunction of the system they are part of, confront their complicity, blow up the damn thing and start fresh. You get the idea. We’re either all advocates all the time or we’re just letting the problems fester.

I love that the American nonprofit sector can absorb vast quantities of both the silly and the sublime. And no one should ever underestimate the resource of an inspired child, beautiful music or a healthy mom. Still, in my quarter-century tenure in philanthropic and nonprofit organizations, I’ve seen enough good people proud of their places in “nice” nonprofits to last a lifetime. The greater return, I assert, lies in nonprofits and nonprofit leaders – and, yes, kids, too – shrewd enough to recognize that the good fight is not only about good. It’s about who holds power and who’s committed to that most dangerous of political results: a just, fair and truly democratic society.