Guest Column

Political change and polarization

June 23, 2017
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Philanthropy’s major elements (nonprofits, volunteers and donors) are dealing with a number of economic, political and social forces that are ultimately reshaping the traditional boundaries these actors have come to rely on to engage in long-term community problem solving.

The social contract — the compact that defined the symbiotic relationship between the public and private sectors — called on government and private philanthropy to focus on their own strengthens and act within their limitations to provide the vital services and civic participation necessary for a healthy and vibrant republic.

This relationship has evolved over more recent times to mean there are activities government can’t or no longer will do that philanthropy can better deliver with the support of public resources and private contributions.

Today, many say these roles have blurred.

Governments at the local, state and federal levels increasingly are looking to markets and philanthropy to scale solutions and take on traditional government functions, including transportation, human services and public safety.

Philanthropy and commerce are leading in areas normally reserved for elected bodies, including providing education (public and private), supporting basic infrastructure (like water and transportation) and economic development (job training and business development).

These new frontiers of public/private partnerships can be seen throughout our communities in ways both exciting and tragic, including the recent Detroit bankruptcy, the realignment of college loans financing, the auto manufacturing bailouts, the creation of social impact bonds and, most recently, the announcement of a more than $70-million gift to the city of Kalamazoo to lower property taxes, to name a handful.

While exciting, the lack of clarity regarding the boundaries for these new frontiers combined with the speed of change make for a dangerous alchemy of role confusion, false expectations of capacity and the potential for politicization of our philanthropy.

What makes this more concerning is many of the solutions we might identify require policy making. In today’s polarized and caustic political environment, these changes will be hard to achieve.

For evidence of this difficult environment, just analyze the current state of policy making. In the 113th Congress, 352 laws and resolutions were enacted (2013-14). During that same time, state legislatures (combined) passed 45,564 bills and resolutions.

Pew Research studies show that Democrats and Republicans are more divided along ideological lines now than at any other time in the past two decades.

It is imperative that leaders in government, philanthropy and industry work to re-clarify their respective roles in society, but they either need to be engaged in repairing our ideological divides or find ways to change policies without the help of policy makers.

Thoughtful consideration and decisive action must be taken soon to address the very real needs communities are facing during these times of social disruption and technology-accelerating change in the middle of our political dysfunction.

Kyle Caldwell is the executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

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