What We Can Do for Our Country

Given how close we are to November 3, we must start with this pitch: Please vote, and please get others in your life to do the same.

And now we must acknowledge that it’s easy for the two of us to get caught up in legitimate fears about post-election chaos and violence. But we have hope that America will find its way back to calmer footing in the new year.

First of all, voters on the left and right hold views that are more similar than they realize. The Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid unpacks this dynamic in his recent post “We Are Not as Polarized as We Think.” Based on rigorous studies, Stid reports that “when people are asked to describe how they feel about the typical American in [the other] party, instead of the caricature residing in our media-induced stereotypes, we view them much less negatively.”

History also proves that America is capable of reversing political polarization when it reaches a dangerous level. In fact, Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam, author of the iconic Bowling Alone, has just released a new book on how America got itself back on track after the dangerously polarized period from 1870 to 1900. “By the time we arrived at the middle of the 20th century … America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation,” Putnam writes in The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Putnam knows we were far from a perfect union during that era, given the racism, sexism, jingoism, and homophobia of that time. His point is that civic and political leaders had the wherewithal to design policies and make investments that lifted America out of a vertiginous nosedive.

If we’re going to pull off a similar feat in this era, it will start with improving cooperation on COVID. The pandemic is surging with a vengeance, and the next two to three months are likely to be the worst yet. We in the social sector—the helping and healing sector—can leverage our deep relationships in our local communities to help slow COVID’s spread. We can model all the right public-health measures and help our constituents do the same. And we can use our last-mile role to help ensure equitable distribution of the vaccines as they become available. If you lead a health- or community-focused nonprofit, please consider using this outstanding guidance from Dr. Helene Gayle and other revered public-health experts to advocate for the communities hit hardest by this pandemic.

Social-sector organizations can also help turn our anger and protest over racial inequities into an era of meaningful policy change. Because national policymaking is so tied up in partisan knots, it would be wise to start at the local level—in person, face to face, with a mask—and in deep coalition with organizations we’ve seldom, if ever, had the occasion to work with before. We shouldn’t assume that the subset of nonprofits with missions explicitly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion can do all the hard work. We all have a role in promoting equity—and combating racism—in our imperfect selves, organizations, and communities.

We can also help our communities overcome contempt and disdain for the “other.” One of our favorite foundations, the Einhorn Collaborative, is focused on this issue and having no trouble finding outstanding grantee organizations bridging divides and rebuilding a sense of shared humanity. Einhorn Executive Director Jenn Hoos Rothberg reports that the opportunities for generational impact are significant.

featured quote

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu often uses the term ubuntu to describe a concept we believe in deeply from our own upbringings—the idea that our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of others. When Tutu meets someone for the first time, he can tell within seconds whether that person practices ubuntu. He doesn’t judge or cast aspersions at those who don’t. He simply channels his time toward those who do, because they’re the ones deeply motivated to move beyond conflict and build beloved community.

It’s our deepest hope that America is capable of making “we’re all in this together” our civic norm once again. In fact, that concept is at the core of all of the great inaugural addresses in American history—from Lincoln’s assurance of “malice toward none [and] charity toward all” to Kennedy’s communitarian request “ask what you can do for your country.” As we face whatever 2021 has in store, let’s join together to bring on-the-ground reality to that soaring rhetoric.

In the spirit of ubuntu,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Kudos to Dan Cardinali, Alan Abramson, and Independent Sector for their inaugural Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector report. Here are a few of the figures that jumped out at us: 65 percent of nonprofits that serve low-income communities can’t meet demand for their services; only 23 percent of Black-led organizations have three months or more of cash on hand; roughly 7 percent of nonprofits will close owing to COVID-19. Cardinali is eager to keep improving the report, so please provide your input.

Huge congratulations to DonorsChoose, which has just passed $1 billion in donations to directly support teachers and students. DonorsChoose, started 18 years ago by Charles Best with big support from Peter Bloom, has demonstrated how blending technology with the social and emotional involvement of donors, teachers, and students can produce meaningful results. Teachers and students get much needed attention and support. Donors gain a personal connection with the teacher and students. And lasting emotional connections are forged, which is the real secret sauce.

In an Alliance magazine column, Caroline Fiennes laments that we still don’t know what will motivate donors to use evidence for making giving decisions. She then lays out simple experiments that would give clear answers: “Take a reasonably large set of donors [and] identify those who have previously funded some sector, such as education in low- and middle-income countries. Divide them into several groups; one group gets sent nothing, and the others receive evidence about what works and what doesn’t in that sector, presented in various ways. Then look at whether and how the giving behaviors of those groups change.” We hope the Gates Foundation, which has funded previous research in this area, is listening.

Twelve foundations have just established the Democracy Frontlines Fund, which will provide large infusions of unrestricted capital to 10 Black-led grassroots organizations. We love the fact that the grant recipients were “curated by a brain trust of women of color with deep experience funding social movements.”

While we typically focus more on human services than the environment, we can’t help but give a shout out to Kynan Tegar, a remarkable forest activist Lowell met in Borneo just before the COVID lockdowns. Tegar, who is only 15 years old, just published an account of his Indigenous community’s David-and-Goliath battle to secure rights to its ancestral forestland and what their victory means for all of us on this warming planet. You’ll be hearing lots more about Tegar in the coming years. He has what it takes to become the next Greta Thunberg.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Oct 29 — Online
Community Foundation CEO Virtual Roundtable” roundtable; Council on Foundations

Nov 9 — Online
Drive Donor Decisions This #Giving Tuesday With Your Nonprofit Profile” webinar; Candid

Nov 10 — Online
Harnessing Design Thinking, Ethics, and the Power of AI for Social Innovation” webinar; SSIR

Nov 12 — Online
Advancing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Within Your Organization” webinar; Network for Good

Nov 18 — Online
Seeking and Acting on Feedback: A Conversation with The Denver Foundation” webinar; Center for Effective Philanthropy