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Reclaiming Democracy and the Role of Philanthropy 

Last week, leaders and thinkers from around the world gathered in California at the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) conference to consider how to promote the idea of liberal democracy at a time when it faces increasing scrutiny and outright assault worldwide. Participants discussed pluralism, the implications for democracies with the increasing reach of digital technologies, how to promote civil civic engagement across boundaries of ideology and extreme partisan affiliation, and the importance of embracing a renewed sense of localism that emphasizes the engagement of leaders and residents across all sectors.

On the second day of the conference, I was fortunate to moderate a panel of distinguished social sector leaders exploring how to repair the social fabric of our communities—a social fabric that in many places is being damaged by a combination of increasing distrust in our civil institutions and elected leaders, as well as isolation and separation from our neighbors.

David Brooks, the well-respected The New York Times columnist, author, and leader of Aspen Institute’s Weave the Social Fabric Project spoke about his travels across the country, meeting with community members he calls the “weavers” who are engaged in the essential, unglamorous, and often unrecognized work of building and strengthening bonds in their community, through relationships, dedication, and sheer grit. He also highlighted the inherent tension in American society between the primacy of individualism and our real and enduring need for connection to others—as David rightly noted, “only relationships change lives.”

Ann Stern, the CEO of the Houston Endowment, picked up on the theme of relationships and spoke about how she and her colleagues are pursuing community-based and community-designed solutions for issues the community itself has identified (as opposed to taking a top-down approach). She related how their program officers are more meaningfully engaged in the community, further deepening their relationships with the individuals they seek to serve. She also shared that they are moving their headquarters from their current location in a gleaming downtown office tower to a location that will be more accessible and welcoming to the community they seek to serve.

Finally, Independent Sector CEO Dan Cardinali spoke about the challenges faced by philanthropy in supporting the social sector’s efforts to promote the essential foundations needed for democracy to thrive. He described the work Independent Sector is doing to promote connection, engagement, and impact among social sector actors through its Upswell platform.

The wisdom of the three participants resonated with me. As a pediatrician who practiced in an urban safety-net hospital in Boston and then as a state public health official in Massachusetts, I saw what happens to children, families, neighborhoods, and entire communities when the social fabric the panelists discussed unravels. I saw firsthand how the failure of social policies in the housing, employment, education, and other sectors contributed to the patterns of ill health and diminished potential. Bearing witness to families who face these challenges is what has motivated me to devote my professional and personal energy to knitting together the frayed social fabric they experience. After two decades of health care and public health practice, I moved to a position at FSG where I can contribute to building a system that is equitable from a different vantage point. The sessions at the Global Philanthropy Forum rightly insisted that we confront the following pressing questions facing philanthropy in the context of increasing division and separation:

  • The equitable distribution and use of power—how does philanthropy avoid the pitfall of identifying problems to be solved and then bringing solutions to communities, who have now made it overwhelmingly clear that they have had quite enough of being saved by well-meaning philanthropists? How do we acknowledge the assets and resiliency of our neighborhoods and the experience of our neighbors who have the wisdom to lead the process of knitting together the social fabric of their communities?
  • The promise and potential of cross-sector collaborations—David Brooks invoked Bruce Katz’s and Jeremy Novak’s idea of new localism  (solving problems from the bottom up via a city-wide network) being expressed through multisector efforts that could counteract the forces of tribalism and an excessive focus on individualism that tugs on our social fabric. How can we negotiate building these collaborations when, by many accounts, trust in some of the very institutions that need to be involved has eroded? Based on my experience, I suspect that the hard labor of developing meaningful relationships at the local level is precisely what can repair this interpersonal trust that can then be translated to institutional trust.
  • Evolving with the times—how can our sector improve our organizations and practices so that we can share our power and build meaningful collaborations? Real change will occur within our organizations when we shift our internal mindset. As we work with our corporate, foundation, and public sector clients, we are increasingly mindful that achieving lasting social impact requires that we acknowledge and challenge the unstated and therefore, unexamined assumptions that are at the heart of the systems we seek to change.

You can repair torn fabric with stitches, or you can slap a patch over it and hope it holds. But neither solution is as strong as reweaving the unraveled threads of fabric, restoring the integrity of the material, even as you create new patterns in it. My time with the panelists—indeed, my entire time at GPF—gave the doctor in me hope that we are ready to take up the hard task of actually repairing the fabric of our community by honestly and respectfully working with one another.

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