By Todd Cohen
The election of Barack Obama as president marks the start of a new era for giving and making a difference.
In his victory speech in Chicago, Obama asked Americans to serve, sacrifice and work together to fix what is wrong in America and strengthen our communities, our economy, our environment and our security.
Throughout the campaign, Obama has urged Americans to pitch in.
He has promised, for example, to repay college graduates who perform public service for groups like the Peace Corps and Teach for America by helping to cover their college costs.
Charitable giving in the U.S. totaled $306 billion last year, and nearly 61 million Americans age 16 and older volunteered, giving 8.1 billion hours worth over $158 billion.
Over one million nonprofit organizations depend on the contribution of time, money and know-how, and the dedication of employees who often are overworked and underpaid, to address the urgent needs our communities face.
“So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other,” Obama said Tuesday night.
Long known as the “nonprofit sector,” or “voluntary sector,” the charitable work and investment of individuals and organizations more accurately should be known as the “giving sector.”
The giving sector is the heart of America.
And now, in the face of overwhelming economic, environmental and global-security threats, the giving sector needs to be stronger, more strategic and more collaborative.
Nonprofits must equip themselves to truly succeed. They need to engage their givers and their boards. And boards need to know their role, help the organization focus on the mission, and give staff the support they need.
Individuals must connect themselves to causes they care about, and make strategic investments of their time, their expertise and their financial assets.
And charitable foundations and corporate-giving programs must dig deep and do more to address the organizational and operating needs of nonprofits.
Obama promises he will work to engage everyone in the job of fixing what is wrong in America, making government truly diverse and inclusive.
That job will require that we learn to bridge the gaps that divide us and work together, and nowhere is that more needed than in the giving sector.
Nonprofits and foundations talk a lot about collaboration, but few are willing to actually give up even the tiniest measure of control or power to form the partnerships that will be critical to solving problems that are bigger than individual organizations can handle.
And most foundations, for all their talk, still will not give more each year than the law requires them to “pay out,” a mere 5 percent of their assets.
In addition to the financial incentives he has promised to give college graduates who perform public service, Obama can push for incentives for individuals, foundations and corporations to give more.
Obama also can engage in the giving sector the truly remarkable political organization he has built.
And nonprofits, applying the social-networking strategies and technology Obama used to build his organization, now can do a better job mobilizing, engaging and managing their own givers.
“This victory alone is not the change we seek, it is only the chance for us to make that change,” Obama said Tuesday night. “And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”
In this new era of giving, the challenge for the giving sector is to move beyond talk and giving as usual to truly fulfill the dream of a “new spirit of patriotism, of service and of responsibility.”