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Memo to the Philanthropy Sector: All Hands on Deck

By Tom Watson on December 11, 2008No Comment

I was born near the end of World War II, in a coal-mining area in western Pennsylvania. In my family and millions of others, either you enlisted in the Armed Services or you manned (and womanned) jobs in the mines and factories to support the war effort. Uncle Sam needed us. We answered the call.

A year after I was born, my family moved to Cleveland. When the coal industry imploded in the 1950s, our modest home became a boarding house for relatives who lost their jobs in the mines back in Pennsylvania. My cousins, all much older than I, would kiss their wives and children goodbye every Sunday night and drive to Cleveland for the week to work factory jobs, where they were housed and fed by my mom.

Today, America and its families are being tested again. Our young men and women in uniform are fighting two wars. Three of America’s largest industries are imploding. Unemployment is on the rise, expected to get much more severe. Families are losing their homes at record rates.

Every American is aware of the challenges we face, but that all-hands-on-deck, Rosie-the-Riveter attitude that I remember is strangely absent. I sense that Barack Obama understands this at a deep, personal level and next month will use the bully pulpit to call us to service as eloquently as John Kennedy once did. 

But we have no right to expect miracles from President Obama. As Independent Sector President and CEO Diana Aviv stated in her moving keynote address last month at IS’s annual conference, “The election of a very talented new leader will not, by itself, be enough…to produce the change we all need.” We in the charitable community have a critical role to play. 

First, we can help reduce the rancor in this deeply divided nation; we can create the conditions in which rigorous, respectful debate can flourish and those with differences can work together effectively.

For example:

  • Foundations can put money on the table to foster greater collaboration between public policy organizations that don’t often see eye to eye, such as Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress and the Manhattan Institute. These institutions can do more to work together to establish the basic facts upon which moderates from both parties can act.
  • Foundations and nonprofit organizations can work together to strengthen independent, nonpartisan reporting. Throughout American history, there has always been a place for partisan pamphleteering (what we now read in blogs, hear on talk radio, and watch on shouting-head cable shows). But the quality of our national dialogue will suffer greatly if high-standards journalism fades away because it simply can’t compete financially with shoot-from-the-hip commentary. In the online and offline world, we need neutral arbiters—not just partisan rants that harden ideological positions. One good example for us to follow is the nonprofit, independent newsroom ProPublica, founded by Herb and Marion Sandler and other donors.

Second, we can promote greater transparency about the way our political leaders make policy decisions and encourage governance that is not so easily perverted by narrow special interests. For example:

  • We can do more to monitor and report on what is being proposed in legislation, executive orders, and agency regulations. With the web tools now available, every American should have the ability to track where and how special-interest lobbyists are exerting influence using last-minute riders and other such political chicanery.
  • We can fund the development of creative new approaches to campaign finance reform. As someone who comes from the world of business, I’ve never understood why Congress shouldn’t live under the common-sense conflict-of-interest rules that operate in America’s boardrooms: If a legislator has received funding from a special interest (either as an officeholder or candidate), then he or she should recuse him- or herself from voting on legislation that affects that interest. Perhaps it’s naïve to think a rule like that could ever pass the Congress. But if it did, imagine how quickly corporate donations would dry up.

Third, we can help national leaders mobilize Americans to contribute in all the ways they can. For example: 

  • We can help repurpose the powerful online community-organizing model that helped Barack Obama win the presidency. The way to engage people is to ask them for their help in ways that align well with their location, availability, interests, and abilities; lower the logistical barriers to participation; and then make them feel valued when they do. Better online tools can help with all of these vital steps.
  • We can throw our support behind the Serve America Act, introduced this past fall by Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Hatch (R-UT). The legislation would greatly expand opportunities for people to serve at every stage of life and use service as a force for meeting important national challenges.

None of this is easy, but we see signs every day that the spirit of shared responsibility is alive and well. “I’m not super-heroic,” 50-year-old Paul Prunty recently told a Los Angeles Times reporter after racing to the Anaheim Hills to help families devastated by wildfires. “But I know it’s not up to anybody else to make the world a better place; it’s up to me.”

The drive to give of ourselves runs deep—in our many faith traditions, our families’ values, and our national history. I know we have it in us to be the next Great Generation. Now is our chance.

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