All Sectors Are Needed To Civilize Society

November 6, 2009       Paul Clolery      

DETROIT — The concept of “civil” society in the United States these days is an oxymoron. Neighbors don’t talk about issues for fear of starting an argument. Elected officials have no idea how to compromise, but would rather “win” by figuratively beating opposition into the ground. 

During her keynote speech at the Independent Sector (IS) annual conference being held here, Diana Aviv, president and CEO of IS, said that “now is the time to re-examine our responsibilities, individually and collectively, as organizations keyed to improving the common good” and maximizing impact. “We are a people divided,” she said.

The nonprofit sector is a “unique, precious space,” she said. But in a complicated world, nonprofits need the help of the for-profit sector and government, just as the latter two need the charitable sector.

“Imagine the profound impact if all three sectors — each operating at the top of their game — pulled together across a broad spectrum of issues? And what if this was not the exception, but standard practice in the way we work? The potential synergy would be far, far more powerful than the sum of our individual contributions,” she said. “Each would squarely benefit from the others’ complementary efforts to improve the human condition”

Cooperation is imperative for the process of the society. “I am suggesting that we not think of government, business, and our community as three separate pillars of society. Pillars, by definition, stand parallel to one another, never to intersect. Rather, we might begin to envision our relationship more like three distinctive strands of a single rope,” she said. “As our sector, government, and business becomes stronger, more collaborative, and more responsible for and to the people, so too grows the effectiveness and reach of the entire network across the nation.”

Cooperation with various aspects of the economy was a theme throughout the conference. A day early, two members of President Barack Obama’s administration addressed the attendees and spoke of government’s need for good ideas and leadership from the sector. Aviv said that measuring impact must now bolster the collective good of the nation, not individual goals and missions.

A crippled economy has started turning elements of the nation against each other. “A few of you have even wrestled down the ultimate question of how to keep the doors open. If only to survive, this very crisis begs the question: is there a better way to achieve lasting impact in our communities?  Some believe we must simply do more with less,” said Aviv. “They posit that today’s climate of austerity is the new normal. To them, I say, ‘not so fast.’”

She said that while it might be smart to adapt to the status quo when there are no other options, “that is not the case. Not yet. Not for our organizations. Not for the charitable community. And not for the people we serve,” she said. The key is assuring the sustainability of the sector.

“My point is that excelling at your particular mission is key — but so too is attending to the wider societal issues of the world you inhabit. Active engagement with these issues is part of the price we pay for this special place we, as a community, have been afforded by society. Doing so is the right thing to do. It is also in our organizations’ best interest,” she said.    Aviv blamed some of the financial burden on the nonprofit sector, not necessarily the overall poor economy. State governments require nonprofits with whom they have contracted to deliver services first, and then accept reimbursement. State and local governments are increasingly delaying reimbursements. 

“Except for a sliver of public interest organizations, at no time did we step up and try to fix a system that we have known to be problematic for years. Instead, we accepted the financial gap imposed by lawmakers that came with delayed reimbursement,” Aviv said.

“We live today in extraordinary times characterized by both palpable progress and invasive problems. Solving them will demand nothing short of a Herculean effort by every organization within our community and matching efforts in the business community and by government,” she said.

“Now is the time for bold action, no matter how hard. President Obama said, ‘I still believe we can act even when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress.  I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test because that’s who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.’”

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