Happy Birthday, America!

“There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America,” said President William Jefferson Clinton, and I believe it too.  I especially believe it on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, America’s birthday.

I’m writing this birthday greeting in appreciation of the challenge issued by Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, of all people, who asked us all in a full page letter published in Sunday’s NY Times to commemorate what’s right with America so that we can build on those things and help repair what’s wrong.

So I intend to use this blog site, where I write “from the confluence of philanthropy, justice, and evaluation,” to proclaim the need – no, the opportunity – to fix what’s wrong with the way philanthropy attempts to fix what’s wrong.

We can indeed fix what’s wrong using the resources of philanthropy, but only if we quit the needs-based or deficits-based paradigm that so dominates the philanthropic sector, and convert it to an opportunity-based or assets-based paradigm.

I’m speaking of a shift that was first encouraged perhaps 15 years ago by Professor John McKnight and his colleagues at Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs, who likened our dilemma to insisting that the glass is half-empty when it would be far more productive to insist that it’s half-full.

The half-empty paradigm insists that people and communities are broken down, riddled with nothing but deficits, inadequacies, and limitations.  The half-full paradigm insists that even the same people and neighborhoods can just as well be seen as having at least some capabilities, assets, and a horizon toward which one can advance and build strength.

Philanthropy – by which I mean the whole gamut of nonprofits, giving programs, grant making foundations – operates primarily with the half-empty, broken-down model of humanity.  The tradition is an old one, hundreds and even thousands of years old, in which “charity,” a bedrock of virtually all religious traditions, is conceived as an imperative to help those “less fortunate.”

I’m not suggesting we stop offering help to those less fortunate.  Offering help to those less fortunate is a good thing, almost certainly for the donor, and perhaps for the recipient as well, at least in the short run.  I am suggesting that strengthening the social infrastructure so that it creates more fortunate people and fewer unfortunate people is a better goal.  And I’m suggesting, in the spirit of Howard Schultz and Pres. Clinton, that philanthropic resources be directed to fixing the systems and markets that produce misfortune, rather than putting temporary Band-Aids on their victims.

Fixing systems and markets requires that we keep our eye on an indicator of vitality or prosperity (in health, or wealth, or access to opportunity) and deploy our resources in ways that stand to bend the trend the lines or move the indicator needle into more positive territory.  To bend a trend line or move an indicator needle, we have to invest resources in the social, institutional mechanisms that control those indicators.

Opportunities for investment include:

help strengthen nonprofit organizations and institutions that can develop promising solutions to bend the trend lines;

help strengthen networks of people and organizations that can educate its members and the public on such promising solutions that take advantage of opportunities for personal, family, and community development, and advocate them to our elected officials;

help strengthen networks that create more philanthropic resources that can be deployed this way;

use of strategies that create more long-term investment streams of support for the kind of infrastructure development that can actually change trend lines.

So Happy Birthday, America!  Let’s celebrate by sending birthday gifts to those organizations that are trying to change the system so that the natural talents and gifts of our people and communities can be supported and advanced.

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Steven E. Mayer / Effective Communities Project / July 4, 2012