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.

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