Socially Unacceptable

January 1, 2006       Clint Carpenter      

The social compact serves as a societal ecosystem on a local, state, national and international level. The interrelated workings of governments, nonprofits, corporations and the public can get more than a little sticky as proved most recently by the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Like much of the Gulf region of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, does the social compact lie tattered from government ineffectiveness and the public mistrust it has bred? Or, is the subject of a social compact between sectors and citizens simply a theory or topic to be tossed around in the minds of nonprofit leaders?

The social compact is the expectation and understanding, both explicit and implicit, of the kind of society that people want and who ought to provide the instruments, vehicles, services and opportunities to make that happen, according to Diana Aviv, president and chief executive officer at Independent Sector in Washington, D.C.

“The relationship between government, the business community and civil society is all a part of the mix,” Aviv added. “I think that the compact is dangerously frayed or is not as strong as it should be in regard to its obligation to society. By that I mean allowing people to have maximum opportunity to fulfill their potential and helping vulnerable people who are physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves. There’s a class of people in our society for whom the help of fellow citizens is an essential element of their survival.”

The social compact is real and can been seen through a number of current hot button issues, Aviv said. The discussion of what to do with Social Security raises some serious questions to the nation’s commitment to older Americans, especially those on a fixed income. Questions about the budget deficit versus cuts in health insurance programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, are just two examples of how a stronger social compact is necessary, she explained.

Since the government is such a large funder of charitable organizations, nonprofits should be concerned with the challenge presented by the federal budget deficit, according to Aviv. With the attention given to Iraq and homeland security, combined with the tax cuts instituted the past few years, the deficit has increased significantly. Aviv said that she has noticed an interest by lawmakers of moving to a more balanced budget than currently exists. It doesn’t appear, at this time, that there’s a large appetite in Congress, the White House, or with the public in general to support increased revenue at this point in time, she said. That type of thinking usually leads to funding being shaved, cut significantly or even eliminated.

“If you look at some of the elements of why we’re in this situation, one of the contributing elements is the public’s distrust of the government,” Aviv said. “We’ve seen this in surveys we’ve done concerning public’s attitude toward the sector. Their attitude toward government is lower than any other sector except the tobacco and chemical industries. Because there’s such a negative attitude toward government, which I’m sure was exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina, the public is saying that if the government is doing something it’s going to botch it up — that it goes into this big black hole.”

The public/government element of the compact has further decayed from a polarization in society where lawmakers are representing points of view that don’t reflect where mainstream America stands, Aviv said. Congress must learn to better work together to find solutions that are more moderate. Aviv is convinced that all sectors would best be served by a national conversation in which public problem-solving is role modeled through bringing people on the right and left together to address the challenging issues, including health care coverage, security, immigration and children’s education.

Then again, there’s nothing like a little bipartisan duct tape to hold together the social compact.

“We wouldn’t work on an issue that didn’t have bipartisan support because you can’t win,” admitted Rebecca Rimel, chief executive officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. “In this climate on the federal level, and I don’t think it’s much different at the state and local levels, if you don’t have bipartisan support the amount of energy it’s going to take to get the ball over the fence isn’t worth it.”

Pew is very pragmatic in the topics it selects. Years ago, when foster care was a hot topic, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, both supported reforming the federal financing mechanism for foster care. Rimel identified that as a winner since the nonprofit did not have to deal with the right and the left and the “D’s and the ‘R’s.”

For Pew, topic ripeness drives the bus. The facts of an issue must be clear and compelling, as well as being ripe in public interest and policymaker intentions. If an issue hasn’t emerged on anyone’s radar, the time it takes to ripen may be too long or it might be an endeavor that Pew is not well equipped to do, Rimel admitted.

Nonprofits should remember that the issue compels how you work with the government. Rimel cited Pre-K education as a great example. Surprisingly, Pew’s biggest advocates have been economists. Many economists are showing that Pre-K education is a good financial bet for the taxpayer in terms of return on investment to the community. Pew has received bipartisan support, constructed a state-based strategy with strong facts driven by research and advocates that it wouldn’t necessarily have guessed would be our strongest spokespeople early on. Pew and its partners’ goal is to get eight to ten states to advocate for Pre-K education for every 3 and 4 year old in the state.

Those key partnerships, whether it’s with some form of the government, a large corporation or the public, need to be structured in the beginning. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there, Rimel said, so you have to be highly focused and everybody has to buy into the goal. A strategy that is extremely open ended is not clear, or if the parties signing on have different political visions of where they’re going to end up — that’s all just a formula for failure. Rimel advised asking the following questions:

• Does everyone agree with the end result?

• Does everyone agree with what the benchmarks should look like?

• Is everybody buying into the endgame and the strategy to get us there?

• Does everybody understand that there’s going to be mid-course corrections along the way?

• Is it respectful of all the partners?

Once under way, Pew designates timetables for its issues. “We don’t set them because of the political winds,” Rimel said. “We set one-year benchmarks, three-year strategy reviews to see whether we’re making progress and then we’ll stick with it for a decade or longer. We have to think about opportunity costs. If we’re pushing a rock uphill and we’re not getting anywhere, we will fold our tent. We use a lot of external evaluation to help us with that.”

Nonprofit jobs turn over, corporations turn over and, even without elections, the government has turn over, which makes the importance of relationships as high as it has ever been, said Jan Masaoka, executive director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services in San Francisco. Masaoka cited “really good” relationships with governments in the Greater Bay Area, as well as the sub-departments of the state, including the attorney general’s office. She said that the expectation should be that of a business partnership with the government just like you expect to have a business partnership with other sectors. It should not be a matter of personal trust but rather more about sound business relationships.

Belinda Johns, deputy attorney general of the state of California, has made it a personal mission to do speaking engagements and encourage information dissemination regarding the new California Nonprofit Integrity Act, Masaoka explained. Johns’ involvement has included working with CompassPoint on a new toolkit for compliance, making a number of public appearances and publishing relevant FAQs on the state government Web site. Masaoka said that Johns has done a good job but wouldn’t go as far as to say that state government has improved. Masaoka believes that is also how a lot of nonprofits experience government agencies.

While recognizing that the social compact is an “interesting insight,” Masaoka added that there needs to be more action to go along with the talk.

“For example, we see both the natural and the man-made disasters and what do we do about that?,” she asked. “That seems to be the question. A series of dialogues on the social compact doesn’t seem to be the right call for action. Having an understanding of social compact issues will help inform the leaders who are going to raise those standards. But reshaping the social compact is not what’s going to be written on anyone’s banner.”

Irv Katz, president and chief executive officer at the National Human Services Assembly in Washington, D.C., views the social compact notion as more of a “virtual reality than a real agreement — a de facto thing at best.” Katz, who spent 23 years in the United Way system, hears talk about the compact within the nonprofit community but not much beyond the sector. He wondered if there are really other parties to this compact.

“There has historically been an implicit understanding that there’s a division of labor among the sectors,” Katz explained. “But things have really evolved. I’m not one to harp on the notion of what the sectors are obligated to do with, and for, the nonprofit sector. In reality, organizations need to be adjusting to changing realities. How discreet are the sectors anymore? In some cases, nonprofits are two-thirds or more funded by the government or third-party payments. I’m not decrying that. It’s just a reality. Is there a deliberate division of labor by which nonprofits perform certain roles and governmental organizations perform others and for-profits others? Not so much. It’s really a dynamic interplay of the three sectors. If we’re speaking of the social compact in terms of an agreement that we as a society will care for our own, and people in need, that’s pretty dynamic too and volatile.”

There have been a number of times that Katz said he has seen people’s eyes glaze over when there’s been a mention of the social compact. While theoretically it is valuable to be talking about it amongst ourselves we need to be talking in more concrete terms with governmental agencies and the for-profit sector, which has influence on the public sector as well, he added.

The social compact should not be broken down into an issue by issue discussion, according to Katz. It’s really about human development and what are the aspects of human development to which the community at large should contribute.

“Too often when we talk about something on an issue by issue basis we’re talking about service by service or program by program,” Katz said. “Those are a means to an end. If we are focused on anything, it should be what is due to citizens when they are in need.” NPT