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Happy Birthday, America!

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Let’s celebrate our independence by sending birthday gifts to those organizations that are trying to change the system so the best of America – the natural talents and gifts of our people and communities – rise and shine.

“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 last 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, where I write from the confluence of philanthropy, justice, and evaluation, to proclaim the need – no, the opportunity – to fix what’s wrong.  

Philanthropy might also take this opportunity to fix what’s wrong with philanthropy.  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.  An assets–based paradigm is one that commemorates what’s right with people and communities and build on them.  

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 society’s and philanthropy’s insistence that the proverbial 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 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 charitable 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, especially if they want it.  But strengthening the social infrastructure so that it creates more fortunate people and fewer unfortunate people is a better goal.  I’m also suggesting, in the spirit of Howard Schultz and President Clinton, that philanthropic resources be directed to fixing the systems and markets that produce misfortune, rather than putting temporary bandages 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 lines or move the indicator needle into more positive territory.  To bend a trend line or move an indicator needle, we must invest resources in fixing the institutional mechanisms that control it. 

Timely opportunities for a July 4 bump in philanthropic effectiveness

  • Help strengthen nonprofit organizations and institutions that can develop promising solutions to bend the trend lines of social system performance.
  • Help strengthen networks of people and organizations that can educate its members and the public on promising solutions to be advanced toward successful implementation. 
  • Use 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 our independence by sending birthday gifts to those organizations that are trying to change the system so the best of America – the natural talents and gifts of our people and communities – rise and shine.


This blogpost was published in an earlier form to this website on July 4, 2012.  How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., Happy Birthday, America! Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]