May 17, 2004
by Bruce Sievers
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Bruce Sievers, hard at work on a new book on civil society and philanthropy, agreed in May 2004 to combine his thoughts and ideas into an essay for the Bradley Center, entitled "The Philanthropy/Civil Society Paradox."
According to Sievers in his essay, the normative components of civil society—value commitments to individual rights, pursuit of common good, and toleration—have been the defining features of civil society since its dawning as we know it. Precisely these components separate civil society from the market and the state; thus, participation in civil society offers a unique way of engaging the world. However, over the course of the twentieth century, the sector has found itself tilting toward the market’s frame of reference and suffering under a growing emphasis on individual rights over communal purposes. The common set of values that once girded the market and the state has eroded, and institutional gridlock is the result. Sievers’ essay asks whether philanthropy, which played a key role in the development of civil society, can fill the void.
“It is very difficult for philanthropy, as currently practiced, to respond adequately,” Sievers’ essay goes on to answer the question. “Since philanthropy is integrally connected to civil society through its origins and evolution, the forces that shape one tend to shape the other.” Philanthropy’s evolution has been marked by increasing instrumentalism, in the forms of proceduralism and outcome-oriented intervention (as indicated by the adoption of “the business model”).
Philanthropy has been transformed to such an extent that, in order to fill the void in civil society, foundations would need “to change ordinary operating assumptions” as well as “address the limitations of a culture of increasing managerialism.” They would have to adopt the new goal of “promoting values of citizenship and civic obligation and …support[ing] activities directed toward strengthening the character and cohesiveness of civic life.” In order to be judged effective, concluded Sievers, foundations would have to change “the quality of public discourse” itself.
On May 17, 2004, the Bradley Center brought together Indiana University’s Leslie Lenkowsky and Peter Shiras of the Independent Sector to comment on the text. The Bradley Center's own William Schambra served as moderator of the panel discussion, which brought out panelists’ differences with Sievers’ diagnosis of civil society’s and philanthropy’s ills, and their own suggestions of steps necessary to reinvigorate civil society.
Click the "Related Publications" box in the upper-right-hand corner of this section to access the transcript of the May 17, 2004 discussion.
Bruce R. Sievers is a former executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco. He is an adjunct professor at the Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco and a visiting scholar and lecturer at Stanford University.
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