A Strong Civil Society in Four Acts

It’s a rainy, Friday morning in June. I am sitting at my desk thinking about three things:

  • The weekend plans and how uninspired they are;
  • The deadline for getting this piece of writing done; and
  • The hangover, and over-hang, from the sounds of this week — most notably the cries of children as they are separated from their parents at our southern border.

No doubt this may feel a bit forced as a transition, but these Friday morning thoughts also turned my attention to a series of essays we launched two weeks ago in partnership with Stanford Social Innovation Review. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a look at this 30-article exploration of civil society, its roots in the American context, and the challenges it faces today, I encourage you to do so. It’s sometimes pretty “heady” reading. But it has also helped me put some greater clarity into how I connect civil society and the public policy agenda we look to advance here at Independent Sector. (We also just launched a second podcast series, Civil Renewal, to continue this conversation, so please subscribe.)

In the end, I find myself returning again and again to the same definition of civil society. It may not be everyone’s definition – but it makes inherent sense for me. Civil Society is that space where we see individuals coming together to take private action in order to achieve a common, public good. I think Alexis De Tocqueville gets most of the credit for that framing, though many others have contributed.

So what is the action we are anxious for those private individuals to take? David Brooks of the New York Times, in the essay he contributed to this series, makes a compelling case that what he sees today as the social sector is more than individuals fighting for a core cause. He sees those individual actors as “collectively re-weaving community.” It’s a powerful image, but one that I think still needs an ever finer point.

Wearing my Independent Sector “policy” hat, I’d suggest that, in the end, what we need is for the individuals who ARE civil society to do four things. We need them to volunteer for the causes they believe in. We need them to raise their voices and advocate for public policies that advance those causes – whatever they might be. We need them to vote for leaders they trust with those causes. And, finally, we need them to give so that charitable organizations have the resources needed to strengthen communities, improve lives, and protect the natural world.

I hope you will always see that four-part formula reflected in the policy work of this organization. It takes smart public policies, at all levels of government, to unleash and sustain each of those four actions. And, if in some small part, Independent Sector is helping to make those policies come alive, then we are doing the job John W. Gardner wanted us to do when he helped call us into existence almost 40 years ago.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read the Voices for Good newsletter, to share your thoughts, and for the role you play in moving this country forward.


Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Election, Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Charitable Deduction, Charitable Giving