The Nonprofit and Philanthropic Obligation: Giving Voice
Today. The day after 11/9. Like many, I feel compelled to write. I do not pretend that it will be profound, or new, and it may even be a bit of a rant. I write these words knowing full well that we have just come through the most divisive, hate-filled political campaign, likely that we have ever experienced in this nation. Further, the acid discourse forced us to actively (or reluctantly) take an equally bitter side. This article is not partisan and I will not engage in a civics lesson. That civics lesson will emerge from the ashes of the $6.8 Billion campaign we endured as a nation. Rather this blog, reflects my work of empowering nonprofits, government and philanthropy to address the need for community, culture, and social justice. It is my belief that it is our collective work in these three areas, which makes our nation great. Whether you are working in an urban area or a rural area, providing social service needs, performance art, engaging in medical research or even promoting environmental or animal welfare, together, we comprise the social sector. Make no mistake about it we are the stewards of our nation.
Our obligation to be stewards can be illustrated by the story of the famous educator, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s remarks two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Speaking to a crowd of 18,000 people in Madison Square Garden his speech included these words,
“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.” source
I have already met people today who are looking at an uncertain future based on the tone of the election campaign. We know that there will be shifts in public policies that serve as the foundation of the social contract with the American people. Any feeble attempt to speculate as to what those changes might look like would be folly. But, in response to any dramatic change in our country, nonprofits and philanthropy have the challenge to courageously lead the way. Such courage does not start with program, services or funding priorities. The courage that nonprofit and philanthropic agencies must publicly display starts with our commitment to build culture, community and social justice. Change must, in the words of Bernstein, inflame our art, so that we make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
So at the risk of being redundant, this election must be a clarion for nonprofit and philanthropic agencies to act boldly in the following areas.
1. Build Our Culture: By giving intentional priority to building culture in our local communities we will address the underlying disenfranchisement that my voters expressed during this election season. At the center of culture building is the need to invest in developing thriving arts and performance that is accessible to all of our community members. The underlying social fabric of our society is woven in large part by our shared experience in the creative expression of who we are. This commitment must include an appreciation of our entire community to ensure that all voices of diversity, equity and inclusion are heard. Creative performance breaks down barriers of ignorance (intentional or unintentional) and fosters a sense of appreciation of each other. Nonprofit agencies, regardless of their service area, need to intentionally build partnerships with the arts and performance community. It could be as simple as letting low income clients know about discounted arts and culture tickets available through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Arts for All program. For philanthropists building cultural community means expanding your arts and culture funding portfolio and your investments make accessible art and culture possible. At the personal level building culture means donating to the arts and performance organizations (Oregon database here), investing in the Oregon Cultural Trust, in Portland, it means paying your Arts Tax, and it also means attending performances.
2. Build Our Community Connections: I believe that the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is stronger together. We must build deep and abiding connections with each other that cannot be shaken. While our scarcity (time, money and talent) make us reluctant to collaborate unless a funder is forcing a Collective Impact model upon us (see this blog for more), we are entering into a time when our ability to success will increasingly be interdependent. Locally, here in Portland, Oregon, a powerful example of collective strength can be seen in Welcome Home Coalition, that was successful in passing bond measure 26-179 to fund the building of affordable housing. Again, to be effective, the social sector needs connections in order to strengthen the social well-being of all of our community.
3. Build Our Collective Voice: If this bitter election has taught us one thing, it is that we neglect our collective voice at our own peril. If we are going defeat racial, social, gender, and the other endemic divides that surfaced in this campaign.it will be proportional to the degree that we invest in building our collective voice. The stakes are high in both urban and rural areas. In many communities, there is erosion in our health, education, economic and environmental systems. Unchecked and unchallenged, this erosion will only deepen the divides that separate us. To move forward as a nation, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have an obligation to build our community voice.
I believe that our country is resilient and strong as we build upon our common experience. We are strong when we seek to intentionally connect not only with those like us but those different than us. We succeed as we create a strong social fabric and weaving that fabric is the unique role of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. In the days to come, may we strengthen our resolve to live up to our obligation.
Photo Credit: Upsplash