Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

February 21, 2011

Philanthropy boosts marketplace of ideas

By Todd Cohen

In the shadows of the battered U.S. auto industry, United Way for Southeastern Michigan is getting $27.1 million from General Motors to help five area high schools boost their graduation rates and help rebuild the region’s skilled workforce.

In North Carolina’s self-wounded banking capital, a group of seven foundations has pledged a total of $40.5 million for a $55 million effort to improve the lowest-performing schools in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

In North Carolina’s politically- and demographically-torn capital, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership have released a consultant’s student-assignment plan for the Wake County schools that aims to balance students’ choice in attending schools near their homes with the need to maintain diversity in the schools.

And in five or six of North Carolina’s poorest counties, the Winston-Salem-based Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust for the first time will focus half the $18 million to $19 million in health funds it has to invest throughout the entire state each year, with the goal of strengthening the work of a broad range of local organizations that can help improve health in those mainly rural counties.

All those efforts are rooted in an abiding belief in the very idea of community, the idea that we sink or swim together and that fixing problems requires a broad range of voices, resources and players working for a shared goal.

Trying to spur change in those communities is the philanthropic sector – United Way and a major corporation in Detroit, charitable foundations in Charlotte, business leaders and a local education fund in Raleigh, and a charitable foundation in some of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

The goal of those and a growing number of other philanthropic investors throughout the U.S. is to serve as a catalyst, trying to spur change and make a difference by working in partnership with government, business and nonprofits to address needs that affect the entire community.

Those initiatives can serve as inspiring models for Americans whose idea of community seems to be simply to stake out rigid positions along the fault lines of class, race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation and ideology.

The argument inevitable boils down to demanding what is owed to “us," and blaming “them” for all our problems.

Whichever side of those fault lines they happen to be on, many Americans argue only in absolute terms about principles like “justice,” “liberty,” “choice,” and “control.”

And they typically make those arguments with closed minds, with little or no patience, flexibility or civility, and often with downright ugliness and contempt for those whose principles differ from their own.

While Americans pride ourselves on our tolerance, on our ability to learn from mistakes and experience, and on our willingness to join hands with one another in times of crisis, many of us cannot seem to actually abide the slow and messy job of making democracy work.

And we end up, inevitably, demonizing those we disagree with and who cannot seem to accept or understand “our” perspective.

What many Americans seem to forget too quickly is that we all benefit when we can find common ground and work together to address community problems that affect all of us.

In the face of unprecedented social and global crises, and amidst the intolerance that now drives much of what passes for political discourse, we are fortunate indeed that philanthropy is stepping up to provide not only funding but also a marketplace in which people and groups with different perspectives can share ideas and work together to address critical problems that affect their entire community.


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