Our Approach to Society's Ills is too Fragmented

August 1, 2013
IN RESPONSE to the Will Bunch blog post ("Why Philanthropy can't save Philly"), the problem is not what Peter Buffett wrote in the New York Times - that "too many philanthropic efforts are geared toward keeping our system of global inequality in place." Instead, the issue is that, as a city, we cannot come together - government, the corporate sector, philanthropy and nonprofits - to address the many challenges facing our communities.

The nonprofit sector comprises some 7,000 active organizations in the five-county region, addressing all aspects of the communities they serve. They address not only the care of the elderly, young, disabled, poor, hungry and homeless, but also education, health care, arts and recreation, parks, animals - all elements that make a community thrive, not just survive. Unfortunately, that same nonprofit sector has to rely on a flawed business model: the revenue stream is, for the most part, based on someone else's largesse.

The nonprofit sector functions as the very infrastructure of our communities, and all of us rely on the nonprofits for our quality of life. Even when we do not directly receive nonprofit social services, the sector assists those who are less fortunate than ourselves, so that our lifestyle is not adversely affected. Even the government outsources programs and services to the nonprofits who deliver key services every day.

But, at the same time, neither the government, nor the corporate sector, nor the philanthropic arm has adjusted to the new normal, which is that the nonprofit sector has to meet increased demand despite their flawed business model. Their revenue stream is not guaranteed and yet, more and more, we are relying on those same nonprofits to ensure our quality of life.

It is true that philanthropy cannot save a community alone. But if we were to come together to determine what is truly important for our communities, and together determine the quality of life we want for all our citizens, then global - and local - inequalities could begin to be more effectively addressed.

While government and the corporate sector and philanthropy are well-intended, we approach societal problems in a very fragmented way that does nothing to change the situation. Rather, our defragmentation perpetuates much of the problems facing all of our citizens and exacerbates the challenges that we all face as we struggle to solve important and persistent problems.

What would happen if we pooled not just our financial resources, but our expertise, our delivery systems and our community connections? What if we had a regional "social strategic plan" of how we would work together to move the needle on poverty, hunger, job development and many other pressing issues?

Whatever sector we are in, we need to stop trying to be the only ones with "the solution." We need to come together to determine what kind of a community we want. We need to come together to figure out how, together, we are going to invest in what is important - so that, together, we make the type of community we want.

The first step is to reach across our sector divisions. Who will you start the conversation with today?

R. Andrew Swinney
The Philadelphia Foundation

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