Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

This year, I’ll complete my 18th year working in philanthropy. I’ve spent the entire time as president of a single foundation: The California Endowment. While I still awaken each and every morning with gratitude and passion for the position I hold—this job really is a gift—I realize I have relatively few years left in this role. When I transition out of it, what I will most fondly recall is the way our foundation has contributed to America’s epic battle against inequality and injustice. In partnership with the community we serve, we’ve thrown some punches when punches needed throwing.

While there are still many battles I’d love to help win, one thing in particular is gnawing at my innards: There’s no shared vision for our nation that is born from our communities and no new social compact to support that vision.

Our foundation needs this compact, philanthropy needs it, the nonprofit sector needs it, California needs it, and our nation needs it. From the perch I occupy, there are moral, strategic, and spiritual reasons why this is our most pressing imperative.

Moral

Whether you call us the nonprofit sector, charity sector, or independent sector, we currently lack a sense of identity, or shared moral purpose. The only thing that clearly binds us together is our tax status with the Internal Revenue Service.

That needs to change, and I believe change starts with our moral purpose. What we truly share is a goal of confronting and fixing structural inequality and poverty in America. Inequality in health, economics, education, the arts, or housing is indeed structural and systemic. It is what links the African-American male targeted by the Detroit police to the undocumented immigrant high schooler in Los Angeles to the desperate white rural Kentucky towns struggling with opiate addiction.

Inequality in America isn’t destiny; it’s systematically manufactured. The machinery? Injustice based on race, gender, economics, immigration status, and LGBTQ identity. It’s time for us to come together to denounce all injustice. Our leaders must have a point of view about confronting structural inequality in our nation, and assert this point of view through ideas, innovation, policy, and systems change. Providing charity care to the needy is noble but insufficient to create the full moral response we need.

We need to own this problem of structural inequality, and not pretend that magical elves will somehow solve it. And if you believe the social responsibility VPs in the Fortune 500 will solve it, then you are kidding yourself. If we are not rising to the invitation of a shared vision of prosperity and equity in America, then we are complicit in maintaining the tragic status quo.

Strategic

As a philanthropic institution, we take pride in listening to and learning from our grantees and the communities we serve. And the voices of marginalized, disinvested, stigmatized, and forgotten communities influence and shape the grant-making strategies we employ.

We are now entering year eight of a ten-year, place-based campaign across California called Building Healthy Communities, where we invest in ideas from grassroots and youth leaders. We want them to tell us how to improve health and wellness where they live. This bottom-up approach has been a great and illuminating ride. But we have also heard a lot about what leaders in these communities don’t want and don’t like, including dysfunction, gridlock, chaos and injustice in Washington, DC.

This phenomenon places our foundation—and like-minded foundations across the country working against structural inequality and inequity in America—in an awkward position. In the hyperpartisan, scorched-earth landscape that defines America’s political and civic theatre these days, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either we “weigh in” on the side of the communities we serve, appearing as though we’ve chosen a political side, or we adopt the careful and cautious posture of just laying low, for fear that we might creep over the nonpartisan guardrails. More simply put, we can either appear like a political operative or behave like a head-in-the-ground ostrich, oblivious to the horrible things that are happening all around us. This is because what our field lacks—at least for those among us who deem inequality in America as a problem that needs solving—is a shared, affirmative, forward-looking vision about what the communities we serve want from our nation, as opposed to what they don’t want.

We have to figure out the shared values and principles that undergird how America should work, and then translate those values and principles into a policy framework to advance opportunity and reduce inequality. Most important is executing that framework.

Spiritual

In the year 2026, America will celebrate its 250th birthday as a democracy. The time is ripe to ask and act on a fundamental question: What kind of nation do we want to be?

As a private citizen, I may be interested in and intrigued by the views of people named Trump, Clinton, Ryan, and Schumer. As a foundation executive, however, I want the organizations and leaders we support—the people who are fighting on the front lines in the pitched battle against inequality—to guide, shape, and inspire our board of directors (and other nonprofit boards).

The party to which we swear allegiance is not Democratic or Republican—it is Community. And I believe that strengthening and optimizing the voices of community leaders to exert power and control in pursuit of their vision is job #1 for those of us blessed to steward resources in dollars and influence.

This constitutes a profoundly spiritual question about the future of our nation.

In the 1820s, a French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America, gathering data and insights about this fledgling republic. In his monumental work Democracy in America, he noted the emergence of self-organizing community “associations”—groups of ordinary citizens who gathered together to address and solve problems. These groups were nowhere on the executive “org chart” of the nation—they just gathered to assert their views on how the nation should work, through the lens of their community. And then they would act. Tocqueville was describing the spirit and ethos of what would eventually morph into the nonprofit sector.

Civic engagement and community voice make up the secret sauce of our democracy. We need a new, community-generated social compact to assert a vision and policy framework for an inclusive 21st-century America. This time around, the framers will not be all-white, all-male, and 50-percent slave-owning.

We are now a more-pluralistic America, an America that must answer the spiritually driven question about the kind of America we want. Examining “who are we” demands the engagement of our faith community and faith leaders as well. If inequality in America has a structural foundation, then we can and must dismantle that structure. It needs to be our cause célèbre, led by those who are most familiar with the beast and best understand how it works.

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