In 2018, Independent Sector collaborated with the Stanford Social Innovation Review on a series of articles about the future of Civil Society in the 21st Century. As an organization that represents nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs around the country, we have a front row seat to just how the turmoil of the last four years has changed the way our organizations function, our leaders approach their responsibilities, and how our communities must manage the change.
Over the last four years, our nation and the world have experienced a profound set of disruptions: a global pandemic that has taken more than 6.3 million lives across the world, including 1 million American lives; our planet’s ecosystem that continues to deteriorate; and the global economic/political/social order has seen significant shifts. Perhaps most stark has been a renewed awakening across the country that without addressing our systemic issues of racism and inequity, we will continue to see a breakdown of American institutions and norms and an alarming deterioration in our democratic institutions and norms – even as we continue to marvel at how we accelerate the incorporation of seemingly endless technologies into every aspect of our lives.
Given my tenure at Independent Sector and our national perch and work in federal policy, I have learned a great deal about how the complexity of these challenges and how solutions are developed, proposed, and effectively implemented, or not. As I prepare to transition from my role, I want to share some of my learnings. What has caught my attention over the years is where I see the most important work our sector can do to help address these challenges.
It is clear to me that what each of us do each day, each hour, and through each interaction, crafts the world we live in – whether we’re always aware of it or not. While it is easy to forget this most of the time, it is evident to me that the accumulated decisions and actions each of us make daily as we volunteer, donate, do our jobs, and advocate for what we believe in actually shifts our world in rather dramatic ways. Our daily actions and decisions are generated from our values, beliefs, experiences, hopes, fears, and habits.
How each of us think about our individual needs, wants, and rights informs our outlook on life and guides our daily actions. How each of us think about our responsibilities and obligations to those with whom we live in our families, communities, states, and nation inform how we understand our communal life and relate to it. And finally, to the extent that each of us individually and collectively learn from our daily interactions, we have the opportunity to become much more intentional about contributing to the world in which we currently and aspire to live.
As I wind down six years at Independent Sector, I must say I still am a bit breathless at the massive scope of American civil society. In a given year, more than 12 million professional staff and over 70 million volunteers act to serve the common good and steward our natural world. It is through these seemingly small daily actions that we are crafting not just our individual lives, but our collective experience living in our nation. I take great consolation from the insight that each of us are co-creators in this enterprise of building our nation and contributing to our collective flourishing.
It is true that I have studied philosophy and theology. But it is lived experience that has moved me to these insights, bearing out what our rich intellectual history has long taught us: individual and collective flourishing are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. Over thirty years working and volunteering in and donating to our extraordinary nonprofit sector has brought this insight into sharp clarity for me.
Three Insights From My Tenure
First, we face massive challenges (e.g., climate change, pandemics, multiple regional wars) that can only be successfully addressed through collective action. No individual, no community, no nation can go it alone – even the Avengers cannot save us! The last two years of the global pandemic have put in high relief both what is possible when collective action is unleashed and what happens when individuals, communities, and nations refuse to take up their role in contribution to collective flourishing in the face of massive sickness and death.
When we needed to, this sector looked outside of each individual organization or mission area’s self-interest to consider how we would collectively make it through a global pandemic that brought death and economic ruin to many of our frontline staff and community members. We advocated and succeeded in ensuring nonprofit organizations were part of the $1.9 trillion relief package. And while we collectively saved millions of jobs in all sectors, we also were clear-eyed that without dedicated funding and specific provisions for nonprofits, we had left too many small, community-based organizations working on the front lines with the most vulnerable communities to provide fewer services or shut down entirely.
Our experiences through pandemic relief negotiations left us eager and unequivocable about the necessity for nonprofits to have a “seat at the table” of federal legislation and led to an initiative by the same name, which would create permanent, structural mechanisms for the sector to help shape and improve federal policy, while also expanding opportunities for the government to work more effectively with the sector to achieve shared goals. This kind of foundational, structural change will be necessary to ensure that the leaders and communities at the heart of the burden and effects of policy decisions also have a hand in shaping the solutions.
The second insight I’ve had in my time as president and CEO of Independent Sector has been that the integrity of our democratic habits and institutions that facilitate collective solutions are deteriorating. Across the ideological spectrum, our political institutions and the habits that animate them are under extraordinary pressure due to the increasing gravitational vortex of polarization. Partisan identity and ideological conformity drive us to a “winner takes all” political and sociological posture that deforms the possibilities of building collective solutions in which the most common of goods can be served. This is true, in my experience, on the ideological right and left.
In our work at Independent Sector, we have built, and continue to develop, a community engagement process that grounds our work in the innovations of local leaders who are putting in high relief private action for public good. Moreover, we’ve developed our capacity to learn with and from these local leaders and their communities while holding our national purview, noting trends and patterns. Over the last five years, we’ve worked to create Upswell as a place of national discourse that grounds the conversations in the concrete work of communities, while providing important signals and learnings that are relevant to wrestling with solutions at the national level. Think of Upswell as a kind of locally grounded action to drive national good.
Through Independent Sector’s Community Building and Public Policy work, we have heard a growing concern for the state of our democracy and the institutions that support it. We’ve also been extremely encouraged by an explosion of local and national initiatives that are striving to rebuild how individuals and organizations work across difference. In Independent Sector’s estimation, bridge building is when leaders and organizations engage individuals, communities, and/or organizations for the purpose of building generative connections across varying differences, including ideological, racial, religious, socioeconomic, and geographic. Given the rapidly diversifying nation in which we live, it is clear to us that bridging is increasingly an essential capacity that citizens in general, and civil society leaders specifically, are going to need to effectively promote the common good. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that bridging is a civic habit integral to a healthy, multiracial, multi-religious democracy.
The bridge-building movement is one of the most exciting trends we see. It’s borne out of our nation’s deepest civil society sentiments and it’s not led by any one individual or organization, although there are amazing and courageous leaders and organizations innovating daily this growing competency of civic life.
Finally, my time at Independent Sector has made very clear to me that it is in civil society that we Americans build democratic habits. I have written before about the powerful defining characteristic of civil society as “private action for public good.” Private action for public good is by its very nature habit forming in ways that are essential to a vibrant democracy. Each of us take stock in our lives and note how we can make a difference and contribute in some important way(s). We then use our desires, talents, wants, and needs, and deploy them in service not only of self-interest but for the “public good.” Unlike business (“private action for private good”) whose measure of success is profit, civil society’s impact is measured in producing good. For argument’s sake, let’s assert that “good” produces individual, collective, and environmental flourishing.
Let me give you a concrete example. I have found that nonprofit boards of directors are terrific examples of how civil society organizations can serve to build democratic habits. Charged with the stewardship of a nonprofit’s mission and enterprise (be it a charitable organization or foundation), at the heart of boards’ responsibilities lies the commitment to develop strategies, deploy financial and human resources, and ensure the ethical integrity of the organization in all its work. Impact, elusive as it may be, ultimately comes down to the organization’s contribution to the common good, not financial return. The vast majority of nonprofit boards are voluntary. Directors do not financially benefit from their service, rather most donate significant time and money to the organization at which they are directors.
Strong boards build and sustain that habit of private action for public good: a director is required to strike an important tension between drawing on her/his/their individual gifts and talents, while offering them into the board of directors’ collective deliberation and decision process. In my experience, it is the pooling of individual contributions to drive collective decision-making that unleashes the most effective organizational decisions. Democratic habit-forming boards have the practice of creating the generative space in which divergent points of view are shared, rich dialogue is grounded in curiosity ensues, and clear decisions are made with full understanding of tradeoffs. Moreover, all this is accompanied by a collective commitment to stand by the decisions as a community without a captiousness, intentionally learning from what works and what doesn’t.
Imagine if the more than 1.8 million nonprofits were all consciously attending to their role in building these democratic habits not just to serve their organization, but as a contribution to the strengthening of our democracy. Strong boards would in turn hire values-aligned CEOs who in in turn, would hire values-aligned staff and mobilize volunteers – of whom would be grounded in these core democratic habits. Over time, these habits would then serve Americans as they engage in the political sphere at the local, regional, state, and national levels.
What is most important for me to convey as I leave Independent Sector is that democracy, both the daily practice and the many critical institutions that support it, are essential if we want any sustainable solutions to the existential crises that face our families, communities, states, and nation. While the many crises of our day can overwhelm and gut my optimism, I have found that when I tamp down the myriad flows of news into my life and tamp up my relational channels to communities, I find powerful reasons to hope. My academic training and professional experience amplify my hope and belief that there are material and spiritual forces for good bubbling up in communities across the U.S.
I have come to believe that it is deeply American to pay attention to those forces of good in community: they are engines of almost every social and environmental movement in our nation; they are living schools that teach and support democratic habits; they are the marketplace of ideas in which the best and most viable insights get turned into constructive social and political action; and they are the place in which human longing for belonging can overcome our tendency to exclude those with whom we differ.
My tenure at Independent Sector has only deepened my conviction and commitment to collaborate with those forces for good and play my part in contributing as they guide us through our many challenges. I hope my insights add to the reflections that all leaders undoubtedly have in their own organizations and mission areas as we collectively work to build a healthier and more just future for all.
In July 2016, Dan Cardinali joined Independent Sector as president and CEO. In January 2022, he announced he would step down from his leadership role to pursue a sabbatical focused on philosophy and theology. He leaves IS at the end of October 2022.