Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nonprofits are vital to the health of any civil society

Earlier this week I was at a dinner in Boston where the American Jewish Committee was honoring a local philanthropist and among the speakers was Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence, who noted in his remarks the important role that nonprofit organizations play in bolstering civil society. It was just one sentence, but immediately it struck me that this is not only true, but an important idea that is often overlooked.

When the public turns its attention to societal ills, the media focuses in on the issue at stake and it's usually elected officials who feel the heat. If we are lucky, and our better angels prevail, we can muster bipartisan support for a thoughtful, thorough solution, and in the best cases, elected officials work in partnership with the public to address the problem at hand. Often though, it takes more than just media attention or political leadership to solve deeply rooted problems.

To maintain a healthy civil society, any nation needs certain things, among them a free press, accountable government and respect for the rule of law. In the evolution of our own democracy in the U.S., nonprofit organizations (and the informal groups that proceeded the creation of non-profit status) have also played a pivotal role in nearly every important movement that helped to shape American society as we know it today, from the fight to end slavery to the battle over women's suffrage, environmental preservation, and the civil rights movement.

Around the world today there are plenty of places where leaders are struggling with difficult problems, including much of the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these challenges revolve around human rights, security and economic development, which, at the macro level, require action by governments and international bodies. At the same time it's hard to imagine that these places might not also benefit from greater activity by non-governmental organizations which could help build institutions and set positive norms, without having to woo an electorate. Such an effort would not be without danger - history has shown that community leaders can be just as vulnerable to danger as elected officials - but in a political environment that is either too repressive or too chaotic to allow ideas about human rights or democracy to find a place in government, sometimes it's the nonprofit organizations and the people who lead them who can make a difference.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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