Bring Back Our Better Angels


In this painful election year, America has gone from “bowling alone” to seething in groups.

For a decade, the two of us have been writing and speaking about seismic shifts that are shaking the foundations of our economy and society–from the breakdown of the social compact between employers and employees to the displacement of workers by new technologies to economic immobility that threatens to turn the American Dream into a mirage. As if these forces weren’t staggering enough, they’ve played out in ways that have unleashed a deep sense of injustice at the very core of the anger we see, turning our political system on its head.

In retrospect, it was inevitable that as economic and social pressures mounted, our discourse would get coarser and partisanship would get sharper–even to the point of threatening civil disorder. As with our planet’s atmosphere, the more heat you add to the system, the more powerful the storms.

We believe our sector has an important role to play in easing America back to its better angels. In fact, the social sector in a good position to play this role. Trust in government is near the lowest point since Gallup started tracking these figures more than 40 years ago. Confidence in other institutions–the media, business, and labor–also has fallen to near-historic lows. Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of Americans say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in charities.

Since the early years of the American experiment, our sector has been there doing its best to weave and repair the nation’s social fabric, often against daunting odds. Very few other countries have developed such a robust array of social-sector organizations, in both faith-based and secular form, to help and heal in times of tumult.

For all of our sector’s diverse strengths, it’s hard to imagine how sector leaders can make a dramatic difference inside the Beltway or at the national level right now. But we are much more hopeful about what’s possible at the local level, where respected community and religious leaders can play an outsized role in bringing people together across the many lines that divide us.

In communities across the country, we’re seeing successful efforts to build “civity,” restore trust between police and the people they serve, strengthen environmental sustainability, and reinvent in ways that address the economic underpinnings of fear and rage. “In scores of ways, [communities] are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” says Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America.”

In the post-Brexit United Kingdom, we’re seeing the beginnings of a conversation about the social sector’s role in healing divides. We hope and expect that this will be a major theme of the upcoming Independent Sector conference, next month in Washington, DC. But much more is needed if we have any hope of being effective bridge-builders and barn-raisers. We need more action, more performance, and more impact. Most of all, we have to come together with empathy and humility to listen, show respect for other points of view, and genuinely engage with each other. Let’s get started now.

And now we turn to brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • As President Obama nears the end of his term, he is working hard to ensure that his administration’s emphasis on evidence for policymaking (aka “Moneyball for Government”) lives on. At the White House Frontiers conference at Carnegie Mellon University, the President spoke about the importance of applying “data and evidence to social policy to find out what works, scale up when it works, and stop funding things that don’t.” Backing his talk with action, the Department of Education announced this month that it is launching its first-ever Pay for Success awards to help improve outcomes for young people participating in career and technical education programs. With Pay for Success initiatives like this, the government pays service providers only after they have achieved positive outcomes for those they serve.
  • The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has already invested heavily in advancing evidence-based funding, announced a significant expansion of its efforts to help nonprofits pay for low-cost randomized controlled trials that can help them learn and improve. Instead of establishing a set number of grants, the foundation is committing to fund “all applications that receive a strong rating from the proposal review panel.” Each grant will range from $150,000 to $300,000.
  • Kudos to Phil Buchanan and Patti Patrizi on their Chronicle of Philanthropy column “Ditch Strategic Philanthropy–but Don’t Throw Out Strategy With It.” They argue that the problem with “strategic philanthropy” is the way it’s been misunderstood and misapplied. But when it is applied with thought and care, it is a key factor “in every great philanthropic success–from the response to the tuberculosis epidemic a century ago to recent progress in reforming the criminal-justice system,” they write. “We would argue that it is, in fact, as important as ever–more so, even, because as philanthropy’s scale increases with every newly minted billionaire, so, too, do the consequences of ineffectiveness.” And while we’re thinking about Phil and his well-earned opinions, we were delighted to see that he earned recognition recently as Influencer of the Year by The Nonprofit Times.
  • Tina Rosenberg‘s New York Times Fixes column “Reviving House Calls by Doctors” taps into a recurring theme for us: the way that healthcare providers, spurred on by new payment systems tied to outcomes, can provide great learning for the rest of the social sector. Rosenberg describes several different efforts to revive old-fashioned house calls for senior citizens, with the compatible goals of saving money and delivering higher quality care. In one experiment to shift incentives from quantity to quality, the Independence at Home demonstration program “worked with 15 medical practices to give them part of the money saved by house calls. Over all, it has saved Medicare $25 million in its first year and $10 million in its second.”
  • Many Ways to Many,” a new SSIR article by Joe McCannon, Rashad Massoud, and Abigail Zier Alyesh, provides food for thought on how you can get good ideas to spread across networks. They profile ten different models for “networked learning,” from the highly structured Breakthrough Series Collaborative pioneered by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement to less-formal communities of practice. As important as the model is, execution is even more important. Real change requires a culture in which a “rapid rhythm of learning is established, improvements are constantly sought and made, improvisation is the norm, and recognition of small victories and joy fuel the work.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

  • New Frontiers” conference; November 16-18; Washington, DC; Independent Sector. (Key sessions include: “Quantifying Impact is the Unicorn in Philanthropy,” “Stakeholder Voices Strengthen Organizational Success,” “Building Internal Culture for External Impact,” “Making Room for Top Talent,” and “New Models for Achieving and Assessing Performance.”)

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell