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Finding Common Purpose

For the past year, I’ve been asking people from all walks of life what “success” looks like. I’ve done this because, from my vantage point, it seems reaching just a basic level of success is becoming more and more difficult for a growing number of people in our communities across the United States of America. This observation is what led me to reimagine Root Cause, and the question is aimed at gaining a better understanding of how to define and measure success so we can better focus Root Cause’s work going forward.

The answers I get are almost always the same straightforward measures that might apply for anyone in the world: a solid education that leads to entering the workforce and ultimately allows one to support a family and enjoy some basic level of economic stability. Many add their hope that success can include some time and resources for leisure.

I think most readers would agree that the United States has entered a critical moment in its history, not only because so many people are having trouble reaching a basic level of success, but also because growing tensions and divisiveness on all sorts of fronts makes it more difficult than perhaps ever before to do anything about it.

I cannot help but believe that nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can harness all our good work as a major force to help bridge this divisiveness and advance the country through the twenty-first century. Together, nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can ensure that more people receive a better education, secure a good-paying job, and so on, and while doing so our work must also reduce disparities based on race, class, gender, or geography. Many of us are on the front lines of this, but nonprofits, philanthropy, and government all have an important role to play. Today, more than ever, this is how nonprofits, philanthropy, and government need to focus our attention. It will strengthen our economy. It will make us more secure. And it is an important step in recommitting to and fulfilling for everyone the traditional promise of the United States as a land of opportunity and a place where each successive generation will be better off than the preceding one.

I’m convinced there are two prerequisites to realizing this potential.

The first is that those of us working to help others must come to agreement on what constitutes the United States’ twenty-first-century social contract. That will be our Common Purpose, and it must apply to everyone in our country. This understanding will answer a critically important question in the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do: To what end?

Why a social contract? Since the concept was first posited several centuries ago, a social contract has been the implicit voluntary agreement among an organized society’s members to cooperate for social benefits. It is the foundation of social welfare and mutual protection, in particular from the very forces that create the disparities our nation faces today, and is the vessel in which nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can, ideally, all pull in the same mutually beneficial direction.

The second prerequisite is this: In the work of people and organizations that help others, it is critically important that nonprofits, philanthropy, and government understand the difference between giving a fish to someone who’s hungry, teaching that same person to fish, and efforts that may sit between the two or even straddle both. The distinctions are, like the social contract, also critically important to answering the to-what-end question.

Let the two prerequisites sink in. I will discuss each of them in greater detail in my next two blog posts. 

In the meantime, I have no illusions that these two prerequisites are easy to meet. After all, all of us know that any tasks associated with them unfold within a complex web of systems and programs led by a wide variety of people with varying opinions, and that meet objectives with varying degrees of success. Nonprofits, philanthropy, and government all see the missed opportunities that abound in our work and all recognize the systemic barriers that contribute to those outcomes.

I’ll again end my blog with a song. Enjoy Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land,” here performed with all the verses by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. This song speaks volumes about the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do—why we do it and why it’s needed. Of course, the song also ends up raising questions, not the least of which implied in several of the verses: Is this land really made for you and me? I believe it is, although it certainly doesn’t always seem so for so many.  

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