April 27, 2007
by William A. Schambra
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William Schambra gave this keynote address at the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) Annual Conference on April 27, 2007.
IT'S AN HONOR to be here today, and a particular pleasure because it’s given me an excuse to visit with a close friend of mine Tom Cushman, whom I came to know when had and his wife Mary were associate rectors at Christ Church Episcopal in Alexandria, Virginia.
Today, Tom and Mary are counselors and job coaches here in Portland, to which they commute daily from their home on Chebeague Island, out in Casco Bay. These are exciting times—and probably wearying—times on Chebeague, and not just because of the 80 mile-per-hour winds they experienced a couple of weeks ago.
The island's citizens have recently secured their independence, which they will formally celebrate this coming July 1. So the citizens of Chebeague have set about organizing themselves into committees and subcommittees designing the governance of every aspect of island life—schools, library, fire control, waste management, road repair, and an assisted living center, the Island Commons. I understand that the director of the Commons, Kelly Rich, may be here today.
This activity reminds us of one fundamental fact that has a direct bearing on the nonprofit groups gathered in this room today. No matter how otherwise busy Chebeague Islanders or Americans are—no matter how wrapped up in business or family or home projects—they still have a fundamental yearning to run their own public lives according to their own values. It may mean putting aside their most urgent private affairs, sitting on committees with people they may not care for all that much, and suffering through meetings that often seem to go on forever with nothing much to show for it at the end. But in the final analysis, Americans still evidence a compelling urge to be democratic citizens—to govern themselves not just by voting every now and then for some distant officeholder, but by taking into their own hands the management of their own public affairs.
Now, this persistent yearning to construct and live in small, self-governing communities has come as a great surprise to many modern public policy experts. After all, isn't the world today dominated by vast, irresistible social and economic forces like globalization and mobility and transience and constant change? Haven't these forces exploded the boundaries of, and rendered completely obsolete, the sort of immediate, local self-governance that the citizens of Chebeague are trying to establish out in Casco Bay?
A fairly new book, Applebee's America, written by Doug Sosnic, Matt Dowd, and Ron Fournier, casts some light on this otherwise peculiar development. As they point out, those grand forces that push people apart in the modern world only make people try that much harder to come together, within self-governing communities. As they put it: "This is a resilient America. People responded to the crush of change by taking matters into their own hands. They reconnected with one another and their communities. . . . Buffeted by change, people crave the comfort of community. They want to know their neighbors and meet people like themselves no matter where they live. They want to help improve their neighborhood and their country. They want to belong."
We find a similar argument in another new book by Matt Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance ... and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same. He spells out what this turn to local community will mean for politics and government. As he suggests, Americans are "casting off the protective, stifling embrace of expert rule. We are compelled to do this by unworkable city budgets, angry debates over school closures, landfills, or housing developments, and other signs of alienation and mistrust between citizens and government." The next form of democracy, he argues, will focus once again on immediate, self-governing communities, where "politics takes place in small groups, and people take active roles in problem-solving."
This trend has an immediate bearing on every organization represented in this room today. If Americans are turning away from expert rule and toward more immediate, local self-governance, how will they learn those skills and talents? We find the answer in yet a third book, but one that's not recent—it's almost two centuries old. It's entitled Democracy in America, and it was written by a visiting Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. Americans learn the art of self-governance, he argued, within local civic associations—by forming and joining and administering the sorts of organizations assembled here today, in the Eastland Hotel.
It would be difficult to overstate how important to Tocqueville were civic associations, or what we today call nonprofits. "In democratic countries," he noted, "the science of association is the mother science, the progress of all others depends on the progress of that one." Why? Because he feared that, in the new age of materialism and individualism, people were all too inclined to retreat into the privacy of their own lives, to have less and less contact with others, and so miss out on the mutual interaction and friction that compel us to develop more fully as human beings. He foresaw those vast social forces that would try to push us apart today.
Those forces would pose a great threat not just to public life, in his view, but to our very humanity. As he put it, "sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another." So some means must be found to draw individuals out of their isolation, into mutual civic engagement. And a primary means to accomplish this, for Tocqueville, was local civic association.
Here, individuals would come together with their neighbors and learn to deliberate, to reason, to argue, to compromise, to organize, around matters that were of immediate concern to them. It was important that these not be grand and abstract national issues, incidentally, but rather local and immediate problems, because it was only thereby that people could see, as he put it, "a tight bond that unites a particular interest to the general interest." By "charging citizens with the administration of small affairs . . . one interests them in the public good and makes them see the need they constantly have for one another in order to produce it."
Now, Tocqueville embraced this vision of self-governance even though he knew that the public works coming out of the process were often pretty crude and amateurish. "One must not seek in the United States uniformity and permanence of views, minute care of details," [or] perfection of administrative procedures," he confessed. And he knew that in the future, democratic citizens would be tempted to turn away from this sloppy, uncertain process—to imitate instead the centralized French system of his day, administered by trained bureaucrats or professional managers, because the end result was much neater, more efficient, more cost-effective. As he noted, "a very civilized society tolerates only with difficulty the trials of freedom" in local association, because it is "revolted at the sight of its numerous lapses and despairs of success before having attained the final result."
But for Tocqueville, the cause of self-government was well worth the price of crudeness and clumsiness. Our very humanity, in his view, depends on our mixing it up with each other over how we should manage our own local affairs—arguing with and finally accommodating the views of others, managing organizations by ourselves even if it means that we constantly reinvent the wheel. Were Tocqueville to visit Chebeague Island today, he would understand completely and applaud enthusiastically the efforts of its citizens, even if they did give him a hard time about being an off-islander.
But were Tocqueville to join us today in the Portland, he would have certain concerns about contemporary trends in the nonprofit sector. And we should consider them very seriously. He would note, for instance, that the sector is under enormous pressure to become ever more efficient, more cost-effective, more streamlined, more professionalized and expert-driven. And as civic associations or nonprofits strive to meet those pressures, the citizen is shoved aside—his role becomes ever more marginal and problematic. That's not a healthy development for civil society, for democracy, for human flourishing.
What do I mean? Consider, for instance, the way we have increasingly incorporated the language and techniques of the business world into the nonprofit sector. We all need a business plan. We should call contributions "investments." We need to be more "entrepreneurial." We need to focus more on generating revenue. Now, all of this is fine, to a point. But if it means that the nonprofit sector comes to view its function simply as delivering goods and services more efficiently and less expensively to customers, then we've lost our way. Civil society isn't about customers. It's about citizens.
Another pressure in this direction comes from the growth in government funding for the nonprofit sector. Again, much of this is understandable. It's an important way to finance the services provided by nonprofits. But it too comes at a price—more rules, more regulations, more emphasis on licensed, certified, professional service delivery rather than on problems raised and addressed by self-governing, democratic communities. Again, civil society isn't about clients. It's about citizens.
But the truly sad thing is that a lot the pressure toward efficiency and away from democratic engagement comes from foundations. Now, foundations should be prime supporters of civic associations as Tocqueville described them, and some of the smaller, more localized foundations are. But that's certainly not the prevailing attitude.
Here's why. From the founding of the first large foundations at the beginning of the 20th century—Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage—philanthropy claimed to be interested in getting at the root causes of problems, rather than just dealing with symptoms, like charity did. That's still the way foundations talk about what makes them different from—and better than—charity.
Getting at root causes, though, requires the expertise of professionals. They have been trained in the natural and social sciences that alone are powerful enough to grasp the lengthy and complicated chains of cause and effect. That's why so much of the grantmaking by the big foundations has gone to science, medicine, sociology, psychology, public administration, and other professional training for experts who can then understand and solve complex modern problems.
But this also means impatience with, even contempt for, amateurish local solutions to problems designed by everyday citizens. After all, everyday citizens, like charities, can only see and deal with symptoms. They can't understand and deal with root causes like professional experts, because those problems are too complicated and transcend the boundaries of local communities.
Consider how thoroughly philanthropy today continues to be bound up with professional expertise. When a foundation wishes to take on a new problem, its first step is to collect all the latest social science data describing it. It then scans the scholarly literature and consults with other foundation experts in search of the latest experimental models for attacking the problem.
Next, a request for proposals is issued, which elicits pledges from various nonprofits—typically the largest, most sophisticated, and most professionally managed—that they will faithfully execute the program as described in the foundation's specs. Given current foundation fads, the winning nonprofits will probably be inundated by expert assistance with internal management improvements, or "capacity building."
Even before the formal program evaluations are completed by yet another crew of professionals, the foundation's public relations experts will have included in the glossy annual report a glowing tribute to its innovative initiative, pointedly suggesting that public officials will no doubt soon be eager to redesign public policy accordingly.
Other than the initiative's "community in-put" phase—in which a thin crowd of likely "clients" drowse through a power-point briefing on the program that will soon be "put in" to their community—there's not a citizen in sight. But civil society isn't about supplying guinea pigs for social science experiments. It's about citizens.
As nonprofits are urged to be more like business, or more like government, or more like an abstract social science experiment, the supreme irony is this. As we saw in Applebee's America and in The Next Form of Democracy, this pressure comes at the precise moment that the American people are turning away from the large, professionalized institutions of government and business. They don't want to be treated anymore as passive customers or helpless clients. They're looking instead for the sort of community and neighborly engagement and democratic self-government that, as Tocqueville pointed out and as the citizens of Chebeague demonstrate, can be found chiefly within local civic associations.
As you now turn to wrestle with some of the challenges facing you over the next several days, I hope you will remember this. Insofar as you draw citizens in to tackle their own problems through your nonprofits, you are making a critical contribution to the survival and flourishing of American democracy. This is not just another warm and fuzzy tribute to volunteerism—that's not what Tocqueville meant, and it's not what I mean. Americans don't learn to be self-governing citizens by baking brownies for the school benefit or dishing out soup in a church basement. They learn to be citizens by sitting down with each other around your tables back home, and through the gritty, messy, unpredictable process of democratic engagement, hammering out solutions to pressing, concrete problems using their own common sense and everyday wisdom.
It's easy for sophisticated moderns to be impatient with or contemptuous toward this difficult, time-consuming, amateurish process. Remember, Tocqueville warned us: a "very civilized society tolerates only with difficulty the trials of freedom" in local association, because it is "revolted at the sight of its numerous lapses." But in the final analysis, it doesn't matter whether or not the process is efficient or business-like or cost-effective. What finally matters is that citizens are being forged in the process.
Forging democratic citizens—this is your deepest and proudest calling as leaders of the nonprofit sector. It is a trying and difficult calling, made all the more so by those in business and government and philanthropy who are constantly telling you to be less like yourself and more like them.
But you are not business. You are not government. You are not a social science experiment. You are the place where American self-government was born, and where it must be forged anew with each generation. No calling could be more important for the survival of the American republic.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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