Special Report: A Civil Society

The NonProfit Times, a bit uncertainly and without the gloss and color that now grace its pages, made its first appearance early in 1987. Within months of the debut, the nonprofit world had been fundamentally transformed. And barely two years later, communism would fall in Eastern Europe and a whole set of global political and economic realities would be fundamentally reshaped.

The launch of The NPT, its readers will be relieved to know, had almost nothing to do with these fundamental changes. But the public emergence of “cause-related marketing” in 1987, and the rediscovery of the idea of “civil society” during the revolt against communism throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, continue to challenge and reshape the way the nonprofit organization is conceived and evaluated. They form my two nominations for the most fundamental shifts in the world of nonprofit action since the founding of the NPT.

Cause related marketing
Cause-related marketing has been practiced by American corporations since the 1960s, when the Insurance Company of America guaranteed a contribution to CARE with every policy it sold. The practice became a matter of some controversy in the nonprofit field in 1987, following on a highly visible American Express campaign to donate a penny from each card use to the restoration fund for the Statue of Liberty. Card use increased by 28 percent within a year, and more than $2 million was raised for the fund.

Maurice G. Gurin, the late and pioneering fundraising consultant, warned in 1987 that the introduction of cause-related marketing practices might come to represent “an almost irresistible temptation for hard-pressed organizations, and for the fundraisers that serve them.” Gurin warned, “With the foresight of lemmings bent on self-destruction … increasing numbers of fundraisers have been welcoming marketing into the fundraising fold. Welcoming is an understatement: they have become zealous proselytes of this doctrinal import from Madison Avenue; they are preaching its gospel.”

What Gurin foresaw was that, once nonprofit organizations yielded to the donor’s desire to link their giving to their marketing desires, the nonprofit placed itself in the position of becoming a corporate subsidiary. As business reporter Myra Stark put it in a recent New York Times article: “What makes cause-related marketing so successful is the consumer’s desire to find meaning and value in all aspects of life, including where they work and what they buy.”

Writer Gayle Gifford has observed, “As the number of nonprofit organizations continues to grow, and the search for new sources of revenues gets harder and harder, more nonprofits are investigating cause marketing relationships with business. With little to no out-of-pocket costs, the cause-related marketing promise of greatly improved public awareness and new revenues is hard for most charities to resist.”

Recent reviews of the nonprofit literature suggest that cause related marketing has become established practice throughout much of nonprofitdom. The old manager’s joke about “tainted money” (T’aint enough) has become accepted practice among many organizations. Moreover, the enthusiasm that has greeted the aggressive entry of “venture philanthropists” into the field adds further concern that the commodification of the sector is in full bloom.

September 11 brought a new wave of acceptance to cause related marketing. As The Washington Post put it: “For hundreds of U.S. companies hawking products including jewelry, sneakers and credit cards, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have provided an extraordinarily successful marketing tool. And the sales, which guarantee a portion will go to the American Red Cross or other charities, have created an unprecedented boost in donations, with millions of dollars still pouring in from Christmas-related sales of heart-shaped pins, coffee mugs and ‘courage candles,’ among others.”

The idea of civil society
My second nomination of a transforming force remains more conceptual than practical at this time. This is the idea of “civil society,” which re-entered the discourse of activists and intellectuals alike upon the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989-90.

The acceptance of the civil society concept by such leading scholars as Johns Hopkins’ Lester Salamon and long-time Independent Sector Vice President Virginia Hodgkinson indicates its current power. In recent work, Salamon writes of a “civil society sector” in place of the “nonprofit sector” concept, and his current title at Johns Hopkins has become Director of the “Center for Civil Society Studies.” Hodgkinson, now a research faculty member at Georgetown University, has turned her attention to leading the American contingent in a 22-nation study of civil society, a massive project supported by the Ford Foundation that is expected to generate several volumes of research reports. The real importance of the civil society concept for the nonprofit leaders, however, lies in its power as the emerging metaphor for this sector in the years ahead. Some 15 years from now, when the NPT celebrates its 30th, I can foresee that it will have changed its name. The “nonprofit” idea may not have enough kick to last another 15 years. I see it being replaced by the much more vibrant concept of “civil society.”

The nonprofit image, after all, was pasted over what we called the “voluntary” sector before the time of Reagan — an era in which it was thought that donors would only support organizations that were managed like businesses, with leaders credentialled with management degrees developed along the lines of the MBAs and MPAs already established for business and government. A singularly unexciting term, “nonprofit” does little for the general public save give rise to the tired joke of the unsuccessful businessperson: “My business is nonprofit, too.”

Civil society, on the other hand, excites interest and invites participation. Civil society appeals because of its many implications:

  • It sounds better to be “civil” to each other than to be uncivil;
  • Things civil also seem rather less regimented than what is militarized or bureaucratic; and, of course,
  • A civil society has a welcome ring to it in a time of uncertainty and social turbulence.

The coming struggle
The coming 15 years will see a titanic struggle in American society, and within its third (nonprofit, civil society) sector as well. Will the ideas of “cause-related marketing” and “venture philanthropy” continue to gain strength, further weakening the distinction between business and nonprofit in an increasingly “commodified” society? Or, will the boundary between business and nonprofit be drawn with increasing clarity in a time of social revitalization spearheaded by organs of a resurgent civil society?

For the short run, the corporate forces seem strongly in control. Their spokespersons own the White House, and the president’s position is being sustained by his vigorous prosecution of a popular war. Concepts and programs focused on “service” to the needy and “homeland defense” dominate official thinking, as administrative leaders in Washington describe visions of vastly increased numbers of Americans offering two years of unpaid commitment to these causes. Third sector efforts involving “advocacy” and “protest” are shunted to the side as unpatriotic in a time of national vigilance and militarization.

But political cycles, and the underlying social dynamics that they represent, tend to turn around. As the impacts of large federal budget cuts for social programs, combined with the anticipated “jobless recovery” from the recession of 2001, begin to manifest themselves on the community level — mediated as they already are by unprecedented budgetary shortfalls within state governments — the need for a far richer set of third sector responses will soon become apparent. The limits of corporation-dominated nonprofitdom may become more widely recognized, and the songs of civil society may more strongly come to echo from churches, union halls, and colleges throughout the land.

Those who seek to predict the future soon learn that the gods give no guarantees in that endeavor. But this columnist, as with all his readers, may confess to his hopes. By 2017, I can envision my column continuing to run in a newly re-titled Civil Society Times.

Jon VanTil is professor of Urban Studies at the Camden, N.J., campus of Rutgers University and is the author of the books “Critical Issues in American Philanthropy” and “Mapping The Third Sector,” and “Growing Civil Society: From Nonprofit Sector to Third Space.”


NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story