imageThe mid-term elections are less than 24 hours away as I write this. I will resist the strong temptation to write about the likely results and what they may mean for nonprofits. (For one thing, this analysis has and will be done, and done better, by others, including Rick Cohen in his opinion piece in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.) But as this is the Stanford Social Innovation Review, it certainly makes sense to think about how politics may affect the development and diffusion of possible social innovations. 

To take just one example, as early as 2012 we may find ourselves with zero discretionary funds for education, health, human services, affordable housing, disaster relief, and other vital needs, as Eugene Steuerle at the Urban Institute has forecast.  Think about that for a second: No Head Start, no “No Child Left Behind,” not even any Centers for Disease Control, without significant tax increases, or cuts in spending on defense or Social Security/Medicare (ask yourself which one is more likely). 

Unfortunately, the old conceptual tools may not be up to this challenge. It seems that since 1968 (and perhaps earlier) we have been stuck between the push for social equity arising out of the civil rights movement and the negative reaction it spawned, an overemphasis on the notion of “rugged individualism” calculated to appeal, frankly, to white men, especially in the South and Southwest. Largely as a result, appeals to fairness or to expanded conceptions of legal rights (e.g., the “right” to health care) will only tend to invoke the old debates, encourage people to fall into familiar roles (we all know the drill, right?), and likely lead us nowhere. 

Getting ourselves out of this pinch will require an entirely new way of seeing, similar to the observation phase of the innovation process, or the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind.” 

How can nonprofits and foundations help turn this around? For my two cents, a good start would be rethinking the notion of freedom, perhaps along the lines drawn by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.  Sen makes a persuasive case that expanding freedom is both the end and the principal means of development, where freedom is defined not simply as liberty or rights but as “the capabilities of people to do things - and the freedom to lead lives - that they have reason to value.”  Key virtues of Sen’s approach are that it closes the loop in the equity vs. individualism debate by linking real freedom for individuals to the broader social context that supports developing their capabilities; it firmly establishes that link as something that not only is consistent with the principles of market economics but can be measured by them; and obviously, it appeals to core American values.1

This may sound like too much to hope for, but the success of conservative foundations in changing the terms of debate about the public good over the past 30 years is evidence of what can be done with committed leadership and many, many years of patient, sustained, core support for institutions trying to change how Americans think.  What are the odds we can make this happen?

1 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, New York: 1999), pp. 53, 85.
imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.