What Civil Society Needs

By Sievers, Bruce | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

What Civil Society Needs


Sievers, Bruce, Stanford Social Innovation Review


HEADLINE-GRABBING PROBLEMS LIKE GLOBAL WARMING AND EXTREME POVERTY GARNER MOST OF PHILANTHROPY'S MONEY AND ENERGY, WHILE LESS VISIBLE BUT NO LESS IMPORTANT PROBLEMS LIKE THE DECLINE OF THE NEWS MEDIA-ONE OF THE FOUNDATIONS OF CIVIL SOCIETY-ARE OFTEN IGNORED. WITHOUT A HEALTHY CIVIL SOCIETY, HOWEVER, IT BECOMES DIFFICULT IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE TO SOLVE THE OTHER, MORE READILY APPARENT PROBLEMS.

When asked to list humanity's most pressing challenges in the 21st century, most people would mention issues like global warming, overpopulation, extreme poverty, and nuclear proliferation - social problems that dominate the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Very few people, however, would mention the erosion of civil society and its institutions as an urgent issue that needs our immediate attention.

Philanthropists, much like the general public, focus most of their attention and money on solving headlinegrabbing problems in education, health care, economic development, and the environment. Billions of philanthropic dollars, for example, are spent every year trying to alleviate global warming, yet relatively few dollars are directed toward improving the public decision-making process, an essential function in a democratic civil society and one that plays a critical role in determining the future of the environment.

Only a tiny fraction - at most a few percent - of philanthropic dollars go to support civil society's institutional structures and to promote the value s and norms of a flourishing civil society. This neglect represents a fundamental gap in philanthropy - one that can undermine philanthropy's abilitytopursueitsotherproblem-solvinggoals.Forwithout a healthy civil society and what comes along with it - such as an informed and engaged public - it is difficult if not impossible to solve the other pressing problems.

The reason that it is urgent for philanthropists and others to address this issue now is that there is an accelerating decline in the health of U.S. civil society. Evidence of this decline is all around us. The growing dominance of commercial forces in the news media, the erosion of the public's trust in Congress, the declining membership in civic organizations, and the steady deterioration of civility in political discourse - all testify to the weakening bands that connect and support civil society.

If civil society is so important, why, one might ask, do philanthropists pay so little attention to its well-being? The reason is that most philanthropists use an instrumentalist approach to solving social problems, one based on applied science and business investing that can produce measurable and concrete results. Although some discrete and easy-to-measure problems - such as building affordable housing or providingjob training - can be solvedusing this approach, many other problems cannot. And it is those types of intangible and hard-to-measure problems - such as increasing civic engagement or enhancing social trust - that characterize civil society.

FOUNDATIONS OF CIVIL SOCIETY

Before delving further into why philanthropists have ignored civil society and what can be done to reverse course, it is important to first understand what civil society is. Although the idea of civil society has ancient roots, it first appeared in its contemporary form between the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe. This was the period of the growth of individualism and attention to individual rights, especially of the rights of belief and free expression, and of increasing demarcation between the realms of civil society and the state. Enlightenment thinkers such as Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Ferguson articulated elements of these early visions of civil society. Following this burst of interest, there was a long period of relative neglect of the concept. Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in civil society.

Some contemporary observers have a narrow definition of civil society that equates it to the nonprofit sector or nongovernmental organizations. …

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