What Will It Take to Sustain Our Community?
by Terri Lee Freeman
President, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region
At no point in my career have I felt such urgency and despair about building community in the region. The data demonstrate negative movement with regard to disparities between individuals with solid incomes building wealth and individuals with limited skills getting significantly poorer. The data show stagnation at best with our youngsters, who are graduating high school, and being accepted into college, only to find out that they need serious academic remediation to make it through that first year.
The economic environment continues to be dire and the recently submitted federal budget looks to cut back on Pell grant funding, heating subsidies, and other federally funded safety net programs. The local jurisdictional budgets for FY 2012 also present a dim outlook for the people who need assistance and services that are delivered by nonprofit organizations via government contracts. Difficult choices will have to be made on budgets and no doubt services will be decreased. Even the sacred cows of education and public safety are coming into play in some area jurisdictions.
Don’t get me wrong — I get it. I understand that cuts will have to be made, but my question is how will we, as a community, come to grips with those cuts and continue to provide the services our neighbors need? And, more and more, I question the role of philanthropy in this equation. How should private philanthropy be working alongside government and with the private sector to ensure a safety net and a quality of life that is attractive to ALL residents and isn’t devoid of culture? What information should we, The Community Foundation, be providing to you, our donors, so you can make the most informed decisions about your personal philanthropy? And is there a fundamental shift taking place in what we’ve known as the nonprofit or social benefit sector? If so, how can we guide that shift and not find ourselves behind the curve or simply trying to keep pace? I guess you could say these are the questions that keep me up at night.
I think a part of the answer is in multi-sector dialogue and collaboration that puts the needs of the community first, and our individual agendas last. An action oriented agenda, with finite time frames, built-in feedback loops all operating within an environment that recognizes that we have to admit failure to make progress. We need to have some difficult conversations about what is a collective responsibility and what is a personal obligation. I think we have to mean it when we say we are going to “partner” and not simply slap our name and logo on the next big idea. And, we have to prioritize. Please hear me out, I’m looking in the mirror as much as I’m looking out the window and trying to assess how we move forward and utilize our limited resources to maximize the benefit to our regional community.
We’ve begun to have these conversations with our group of 8 Neighbors which represent philanthropy, nonprofits or social benefit organizations, the private sector, executive leadership and the public sector. What I’ve found is we all want the best for this community; the question is how we get to success relatively quickly? The willingness of these eight groups to work together shines a bright light on this rather dismal landscape. Equally illuminating is the wonderful work of individual nonprofit organizations throughout our region. Our role is in helping these organizations work with government and the private corporate and philanthropic sectors to create a cohesive quilt of service-delivery that has a beginning, middle and ultimately a successful ending.
So where does all this lead us…how about more clearly stated priorities, with metrics and information that demonstrate impact and compel both public and private funding. And maybe it leads us to a more inclusive table with those who receive, deliver and fund. What I’m certain of is that we must do business differently. Our support of and investment in our neighbors who need services and the nonprofits that provide that help must be well-informed and well-leveraged. And we have to be committed – for the long haul (a minimum of ten years) – to catalyzing the positive change we hope for our community.