Civic Engagement Social innovations that enrich society and enhance democratic participation
With its professional management class and army of consultants, the nonprofit sector can sometimes seem isolated from the messiness of civil society, and a new Philanthropic Beltway may have sprung up. But it wasn’t always that way, and it may be time to reclaim an earlier identity as the “volunteer sector,” which is inherently democratic.
Like all of civil society, the American nonprofit sector is a living thing. Its recent evolution has created a large and diverse force for good, but faces distinct challenges ranging from identity to sustainability.
Discourse and dialogue have always been the hallmarks of civil society, but when the power of government is used systematically to divide and exclude, it is the stinging conversations and actions at the leading edge of civil society that will reestablish the democratic ideals of an equitable democracy.
Culture is born of values, and civil society is where people live values most urgently. Amid growing social isolation in the United States, a new set of values is emerging around community, healing, and belonging, and they will likely define an era.
The history of America’s Hispanic community shows how civil society can create a refuge for those excluded from society at large. But allowing such demarcation lines is never good enough. For a civil society to be effective, sustainable, and worthy, it must tie together all who reside in that society.
Driven by a confluence of powerful secular trends, Americans’ trust in civil society has declined to alarming levels. Without addressing these trends and reversing the loss of trust, the ideal of private action for the public good could be at risk.
In both the conservative and progressive imagination, civil society is valued—for opposite reasons—as an arbiter between the individual and the national state. But by viewing civil society as the core of America’s social life, we can see our way toward a politics that might overcome some of the dysfunctions of our day.
Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.
It’s time for activists and organizations to adopt a more strategic approach to public interest communications.
Funders and advocates must come together to build movements that can run successful and successive campaigns that result in good policy and grassroots power.