Public service embodies America’s spirit

By Todd Cohen

A crusade by short-sighted tax-cutters aims to gut part of what is best about America.

The American spirit is rooted in the idea of helping your neighbor.

It expresses itself in public policies that encourage charitable giving and the work of the nonprofit sector.

And it is embodied in a rich mosaic of public-service programs that have engaged generations of Americans in the shared task of serving people and communities.

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a public enterprise that is a crown jewel of our culture of giving and has dispatched over 200,000 Americans to service in 139 countries.

Now under attack is another public treasure of our giving culture, a domestic version of the Peace Corps that was launched in 1963 and operates under the umbrella of the Corporation for National and Community Service, engaging five million Americans a year in service.

Many of those volunteers get stipends, but they are modest at best, and the return on that taxpayer investment is priceless, both for the people and communities the volunteers serve, and for the lessons the volunteers themselves learn.

But now, pandering to public outrage over a marketplace hijacked by big banks, and over a government unable to instantly fix our critically wounded economy, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to eliminate dozens of federal programs and offices, including the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Eliminating programs that do not work or benefit the bottom line is a tough but often necessary decision for every organization, from the federal government to small nonprofits, particularly in our turbulent and uncertain economy.

But one needs more than a measuring spoon to gauge what works and to assess costs and benefits.

As a growing number of socially-responsible companies are learning, social and environmental returns are as vital to the ultimate bottom line as profits.

And in the case of public-service programs like AmeriCorps that operate under the Corporation for National and Community Service, dollars alone cannot begin to tell the tale.

The slash-and-burn mindset of many Americans and elected officials who equate government and taxes with a totalitarian state is blind to the crucial fact that both are central to our ongoing experiment in democracy.

We pay taxes for our military and our local police, firefighters and emergency workers to keep us secure.

We pay taxes for our public schools to educate our children, and for our community colleges and public universities to prepare smart workers and productive citizens.

We pay taxes for our government to build and maintain our roads and public transit systems, and to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe.

We can and should argue among ourselves, with civility, over the proper size of the government and the degree to which it can or should seek to right social wrongs, or encroach on individual freedom in the interest of the common good.

The result of those conversations invariably will reflect compromises that do not make everyone happy.

There should be no question, however, about the value of investing modest public funds in public-service programs that enlist Americans to serve our communities.

That investment sustains and fosters a legacy of giving that helps define who we are as a people.

Terminating those programs in the name of cutting costs and taxes reflects a fixation on the same quick-gain mentality that drives the financial institutions that have trashed our economy.

The crusade to kill public-service programs to save a few dollars, which likely will be handed right back to wealthy people and big corporations in the form of tax cuts and incentives, reflects political math and public policy that fail to fully fathom the spirit and character of America’s true bottom line.

Philanthropy boosts marketplace of ideas

By Todd Cohen

In the shadows of the battered U.S. auto industry, United Way for Southeastern Michigan is getting $27.1 million from General Motors to help five area high schools boost their graduation rates and help rebuild the region’s skilled workforce.

In North Carolina’s self-wounded banking capital, a group of seven foundations has pledged a total of $40.5 million for a $55 million effort to improve the lowest-performing schools in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

In North Carolina’s politically- and demographically-torn capital, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership have released a consultant’s student-assignment plan for the Wake County schools that aims to balance students’ choice in attending schools near their homes with the need to maintain diversity in the schools.

And in five or six of North Carolina’s poorest counties, the Winston-Salem-based Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust for the first time will focus half the $18 million to $19 million in health funds it has to invest throughout the entire state each year, with the goal of strengthening the work of a broad range of local organizations that can help improve health in those mainly rural counties.

All those efforts are rooted in an abiding belief in the very idea of community, the idea that we sink or swim together and that fixing problems requires a broad range of voices, resources and players working for a shared goal.

Trying to spur change in those communities is the philanthropic sector – United Way and a major corporation in Detroit, charitable foundations in Charlotte, business leaders and a local education fund in Raleigh, and a charitable foundation in some of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

The goal of those and a growing number of other philanthropic investors throughout the U.S. is to serve as a catalyst, trying to spur change and make a difference by working in partnership with government, business and nonprofits to address needs that affect the entire community.

Those initiatives can serve as inspiring models for Americans whose idea of community seems to be simply to stake out rigid positions along the fault lines of class, race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation and ideology.

The argument inevitable boils down to demanding what is owed to “us,” and blaming “them” for all our problems.

Whichever side of those fault lines they happen to be on, many Americans argue only in absolute terms about principles like “justice,” “liberty,” “choice,” and “control.”

And they typically make those arguments with closed minds, with little or no patience, flexibility or civility, and often with downright ugliness and contempt for those whose principles differ from their own.

While Americans pride ourselves on our tolerance, on our ability to learn from mistakes and experience, and on our willingness to join hands with one another in times of crisis, many of us cannot seem to actually abide the slow and messy job of making democracy work.

And we end up, inevitably, demonizing those we disagree with and who cannot seem to accept or understand “our” perspective.

What many Americans seem to forget too quickly is that we all benefit when we can find common ground and work together to address community problems that affect all of us.

In the face of unprecedented social and global crises, and amidst the intolerance that now drives much of what passes for political discourse, we are fortunate indeed that philanthropy is stepping up to provide not only funding but also a marketplace in which people and groups with different perspectives can share ideas and work together to address critical problems that affect their entire community.

Creating community by learning to serve

By Todd Cohen

Giving, serving and connecting are what create and build healthy communities.

Nonprofits and givers can begin the seemingly overwhelming job of healing and repairing our broken communities by striving to build their own capacity to learn, serve, manage and lead.

To best advance their larger mission of serving and building community, nonprofits first must build into their own organizations the culture of service and community they champion.

That means making it a priority to invest the time, thinking and resources needed to become self-sustaining communities within their own organizations, truly engaging staff, board, volunteers, givers, partners and constituents in the shared job of learning and practicing basic competencies of management, leadership, service, communication and engagement.

Fighting just to survive in the economic crisis, nonprofits must move beyond their identity as society’s alms-house, an overworked, underpaid and neglected step-child whose good works and service role are essential but rarely recognized, understood or valued.
Nonprofits need to own, promote and demonstrate the social and economic role that service, giving and working together can play in building and growing community.

They can begin to do that by learning and practicing service, giving and collaboration in their own operations, engaging every member of their individual organization’s “family” in the job of making their organizations best serve their communities.

To show their value, promote their social mission, and secure the investment they need, nonprofits should make it a strategic priority to build their own capacity and leadership, creating organizations, partnerships and stories that engage employees, volunteers, givers, partners and clients.

Big change starts with the small change of changing how we work, learn, lead, serve and communicate.

A special web briefing

Please join me on Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern time for a special briefing for Philanthropy Journal members that will look at the impact the troubled economy has had on nonprofits, and strategies they can use to improve their performance and impact.

Joining me for the briefing will be Kevin Trapani, president and CEO of The Redwoods Group, a North Carolina-based insurance provider for YMCAs, Jewish community centers and nonprofit resident camps throughout the U.S. A key focus of Kevin’s company has been to help its nonprofit clients adopt best practices and strengthen their performance and operating culture.

In the web briefing, I will talk briefly about the impact the troubled economy has had on nonprofits, and then Kevin will talk about ways nonprofits can improve their performance and impact.

PJ members then will have the opportunity to ask questions.

If you are not one already, I hope you will become a PJ member, and take advantage of this special web briefing and other membership benefits.

The Philanthropy Journal, a program of the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University, delivers our news and resource information for free.

PJ does not receive government funding, and we depend on advertising revenue and donations.

So your membership is important to help us continue to provide the news and information nonprofits count on.

To become a PJ member, click here.

I hope you will join Kevin and me on Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern time for the web briefing for PJ members.

Impact boils down to performance

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits are at a crossroads.

They can stick to business as usual and risk failure, or they can focus on fundamentals while also pursuing innovative and collaborative opportunities in the new charitable marketplace.

Operating effectively and making an impact are important for nonprofits because they are in business to serve people and places in need.

And doing that ultimately depends on the people who work at the nonprofit.

Kevin Trapani thinks a lot about these challenges: His company, The Redwoods Group, provides insurance for YMCAs, Jewish community centers and nonprofit resident camps, and a big focus at the company has been to help its clients adopt best practices and improve their performance.

And that requires creating a corporate culture that values the organization’s most valuable asset – its employees – and uses strategies to help them work better and smarter.

How can nonprofits seriously expect to serve their clients effectively if they do not serve their own employees effectively and give them the tools they need to operate effectively?

This is not simply some feel-good issue; it represents a critical challenge for all organizations, especially nonprofits.

With few resources, nonprofits are expected to work the miracle of fixing our most urgent social and global problems.

Yet nonprofit employees are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, under stress and worried about their livelihood.

And in tough times, investment in the professional development of employees is the first thing nonprofits cut.

On Feb. 15, at 1 p.m. Eastern time, Kevin will be joining me in a special web briefing for Philanthropy Journal members.

In the web briefing, I will talk briefly about the impact the troubled economy has had on nonprofits, and then Kevin will talk about ways nonprofits can improve their performance and impact.

PJ members then will have the opportunity to ask questions.

If you are not one already, I hope you will become a PJ member, and take advantage of this special web briefing and other membership benefits.

The Philanthropy Journal, a program of the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University, delivers our news and resource information for free.

PJ does not receive government funding, and we depend on advertising revenue and donations.

So your membership is important to help us continue to provide the news and information nonprofits count on.

To become a PJ member, click here.

I hope you will join Kevin and me for this special web briefing for PJ members.