Friday, December 22, 2006

Non-profit growth as part of global social change

I recently observed a briefing hosted by the Carnegie Corporation at which the opening speaker was Alan Khazei. The specific subject at hand was youth development; Khazei's remarks ended up being partly about the global growth of the nongovernmental non-profit sector.

Khazei co-founded City Year, which recruits American college-age youth for a year of urban civic service (and which is now taking its service global). Via email I obtained his permission to report his remarks publicly here and he bravely didn't ask to review my notes, so all errors of interpretation are entirely mine.

He led off by applauding TIME Magazine's naming as its annual "Person of the Year", you. By that they mean the changes now being wrought by individuals acting directly instead of through institutions, of which most of their examples turn out to be young people.
(Some folks are rolling their eyes at the magazine's decision.) Khazei suggested that the magazine's choice fits well with "two of the most widespread global trends of the last half-century, the march of democracy and the explosive spread of the civic sector". Khazei cited surveys by outfits such as Freedom House and The Economist, which recently concluded that in a historic first more than half the world's population now lives under some form of democracy. (Though the latter, at least, thinks that the spread of democracy has stalled.)

Those two broad global trends, Khazei said, have been in driven by the United States' cultural influence but have now spread beyond any single society's control. And, he argued, "both of these changes depend on empowered effective citizenship and can be undone by the lack of it. There is nothing inexorable about any of this; less than 100 years ago autocracy was the world's growth sector.

Khazei's related thesis is that "everywhere around the world, people are concluding that the limit has been reached in the ability of big government to directly solve problems." Not a theory that centralized government needs to vanish, but rather that "the list of things which government can be the effective solution to has been exhausted." The social entrepeneurship idea flows from this notion, he noted. From his travels around the world he reported that "this is not at all just a Western idea, it is the consensus in the grass roots everywhere." In place of big government, he said, is the emerging idea of 'big citizenship': individual action and the civic sector as the primary drivers of positive change. "Young people are very excited by this and take naturally to it."

Foundations, Khazei argued, can play a key role at this juncture, "can help empower this. You can help build capacities and build citizenship and nurture ideas; you are uniquely placed to convene people at key moments and places." Also, Khazei said, "we've got to start making some big bets. We need in the non-profit sector the kind of dynamism that the business world now has, where half of our 20 largest corporations are less than a quarter-century old. Most of the non-profit models taken to serious scale, like the Girl Scouts and Amnesty International and United Way, are several decades or a century old."

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