Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Land is Your Land

On the day before the Inauguration, there was an extraordinary concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and Bono, along with 16 other artists, by all accounts it was joyous and fun, as well as uplifting. I got to hear “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen in the lead, and I cried all the way through it. Seeger has an amazing presence and it seemed he was almost levitating with happiness as he sang. “This land is your land” is, in part at least, about the commons and the struggle for public land over private property. The song itself is in the public domain and we don’t have to pay royalties to sing it (yet).

The concert was free and open to the public which I thought was a lovely and amazing beginning of this new administration. I wasn’t at the concert because I was on the other side of the country, at my home in Berkeley, CA. My neighbor, who has followed my commons commentary from the beginning, came outside to tell me that she and her partner were trying to listen to the concert and kept going back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, only to be frustrated by the fact that someone was always talking with the performers in the background. Finally, Wolf Blitzer (a commentator on MSNBC) said that they were getting a lot of complaining e-mails about how they were covering the concert. He then explained that HBO had EXCLUSIVE rights to the concert and so they couldn’t broadcast it directly. My neighbor was outraged. “Don’t you think this is a commons issue?” she said. “This should have been on public television.” Indeed, I had to agree. The concert was not free to any public that could not get to it. You had to have not only cable, but the more expensive cable packages that include HBO. We shook our heads and went back inside.

Later in the day another friend came over. He said, “Did you hear the concert?”
“No, I don’t have cable” I said, half sad and half righteous.
“HBO let NPR Radio broadcast the concert,” he said. “I listened to it on my drive back from the mountains.”

So the concert was available to the public, through public radio, just not through public television or other regular television stations. This friend also follows commons issues pretty closely. I asked him if he thought it was outrageous that HBO had exclusive rights to broadcast it, and he pointed out that probably they couldn’t have had such a great line-up without HBO sponsorship fees. “Do you think the government should pay for pre-inauguration concerts?” he asked. “That seems a little too much to expect in this economy.”

Perhaps he is right. Yet I think it would be a sign of the success of this administration if someday these kind of concerts were broadcast on all public airwaves, paid for by taxes saved by not being at war.
As Guthrie wrote in the last verse of “This Land is Your Land”:
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
We are still wondering, but we have hope.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Change in the new year

I gave a talk last week at a meeting of about 100 development directors, and other staff and board members from a variety of San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits. The topic was “Fundraising During Economic Turmoil” and I talked about fundraising strategies for awhile, but I also used my place at the podium to talk about the commons. I said, “Our most important assets are collective and social in nature. These assets are our “commons: our natural commons such as air, water, oceans and wildlife, or our cultural commons such as libraries, parks, museums.” I quoted from Dorothy Day’s teacher, Peter Maurin, who believed that our task is to create a society in which it is not that hard to be good. And that kind of society would place a high premium on the common good.

In fact, I almost always use my keynotes and speeches to talk about the commons in one way or another and often people are interested, but the questions and answers are almost always very practical: “Should we still use direct mail?” “Has the IRA rollover provision led to an increase in giving?” “Do donors think special events are a waste of money?” I expected this to be even truer, so was greatly and pleasantly surprised when the questions were much more profound.

The first question from a long time fundraising professional was, “What can an organization do to really insure that it works for the common good?” A second question from an executive director, “Should nonprofits get together and think about how to take care of each other, so those that are doing well now help those which are having a hard time?” And yet another question, “How can we help create a just and fair tax structure so that organizations that should be funded by taxes are, and those who should be funded by private sources are not competing with social services?”

David Bollier says, “Learning to see and understand the dozens of commons in our midst is one of the preeminent challenges of our time.” Recognizing our organizations as a commons and using that recognition to build a movement for the common good could be the most important development in the nonprofit sector in many decades. If my colleagues at this talk are any indication, 2009 may be a banner year for actually making deep and lasting social change.