Friday, July 21, 2006

Functioning communities

What is a healthy community? One that treats people equitably, values all its members, provides opportunities for all, reconciles with the faults of its present and its past, educates, enlightens, and engages the minds, bodies and spirits of its young and its old. (just some thoughts - I'm sure I left some things out)

Learning, books, and media matter to such communities. Education. Jobs. Diverse opinions, values, and beliefs and mechanisms for working together to find what is common. Health care. Art. Leisure and recreation. Outdoor space and clean air & water. (and more, no doubt)

The institutions Americans have built to provide the above components of healthy communities were mostly designed at least a century ago, during the great institution building of the late 19th Century and early Progressive Era of the 20th. Think about - schools, libraries, newspapers, museums, hospitals, elder care, mental health, public parks.

So if we want to nurture and create healthy communities now, it doesn't seem wise to focus on changing one institution at a time, but to look at the whole menu of attributes and - at least in our imaginations - give ourselves the creative room to re-puzzle all the pieces. Perhaps libraries, newspapers, and community wikis are best thought of as one thing - sites of community information. How about museums, mural programs, digital media companies, hiking trails, and schools - aren't they each about some form of learning? Why do we separate facilities for the elderly from those for infants and toddlers when the two complement each other so well? What about our legal structures and the boundaries they use to include and exclude - do they fit the realities of who we are today and where we live or come from? What if we could completely redesign the public spaces in our places - how might they change to accommodate our recreation, health, environmental and transportation needs?

All of these questions ask us to reconsider what we want, what we need, and who provides it. They are fundamentally questions of public and private responsibility in communities. Every institution in our communities - from the bodes on the corner to the public schools, from the community foundation to the HQ of a multinational corporation - depends on these decisions and has a stake in them.

These questions - of public and private, of justice and equity, of communal and individual - are what I think should matter most to philanthropy. Too bad we're hung up on questions of outcome measurements and payout requirements.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your posting reminded me of the
Yes, we need to aspire to the working community, but don't all organizations, operating and philanthropic, need to get down to the work they do to build those communities? To the piece they contribute, or the inspiration they enable? While a focus on the payout ratio seems irrelevant, adherence to accountability seems essential.

Your piece make me think of the Peter Drucker quotes about bulldozers. I found the following online (it's from "Managing Oneself" in a 1999 Harvard Business Review), but it's also in his Managing the Nonprofit Organization. He wrote:

"For example, a planner may find that his beautiful plans fail because he does not follow through on them. Like so many brilliant people, he believes that ideas move mountains. But bulldozers move mountains; ideas show where the bulldozers should go to work. This planner will have to learn that the work does not stop when the plan is completed. He must find people to carry out the plan and explain it to them. He must adapt and change it as he puts it into action. And finally, he must decide when to stop pushing the plan."

We need to develop the understanding of what our communities will look like and how they will live and grow. Then we need to employ our 'bulldozers' to get things moving.