“Solutions to America’s challenges are being developed every day at the grass roots – and government shouldn’t be supplanting those efforts, it should be supporting those efforts.” With those stirring words, US President Barack Obama announced “a new kind of partnership between government and the non-profit sector” in a speech on Tuesday at the White House attended by 100 non-profit leaders from across the country. President Obama had earlier announced a $50 million social innovation fund to “identify and expand innovative and effective non-profits”.
Before President Obama’s inspiring speech on Tuesday, four non-profit leaders set out their innovative work, including the Harlem Children’s Zone, HopeLab, Bonnie CLAC, and GeneSys Works. While there has been growing recognition of the economic and social value of the non-profit sector in the US, President Obama’s comments have helped to focus a national debate on the critical value of community-based initiatives not only to help individuals who are suffering, but also to re-build the economy for the 21st century. His comments came one day after Johns Hopkins University released the latest in a grim series of reports from UK, Canada and the US that points to the massive fiscal stress facing non-profits. The Wellesley Institute has a series of research and policy reports on the non-profit sector including, most recently, Canada’s non-profit maze.
According to President Obama: “Ultimately, the best solutions don’t come from the top-down, not from Washington; they come from the bottom-up in each and everyone one of our communities. As some of you know, I first saw this years ago when I worked as a community organizer in Chicago – neighborhoods devastated by steel plant closings. And I spent hours going door to door, meeting with anyone who would talk to me, asking people about their struggles and what an organization could do to help. And it was slow, laborious going. We had plenty of setbacks and failed more often than we succeeded. But we listened to the people in the community and we learned from them and got them engaged and got them involved. And slowly, block by block, we began to turn those neighborhoods around, fighting for job training and better housing and more opportunity for young people.”
“The lesson I learned then still holds true today: that folks who are struggling don’t simply need more government bureaucracy; that top-down, one-size-fits-all program usually doesn’t end up fitting anybody. People don’t need somebody out in Washington to tell them how to solve their problems, especially when the best solutions are often right there in their own neighborhoods, just waiting to be discovered. So right now, in communities across America, people are hard at work developing and running programs that could be the next Harlem Children’s Zone or the next Genesys Works or the next Hope Lab, and idealistic young people like Wendy Kopp who refused to listen to the skeptics years ago and pushed ahead to bring her vision for Teach for America to life.”
The early reaction to President Obama’s speech from the non-profit sector has been almost entirely positive, with comments revolving around some key questions:
• Is the $50 million social innovation fund adequate to meet the needs of non-profits right across the United States (President Obama has other initiatives that are related to the social innovation fund)?
• With President Obama’s focus on funding “innovative and effective” non-profits, who gets to decide what is innovative, and what is effective?
The US President has a lot of power (and a lot of money), but perhaps most important in the Tuesday speech was the willingness of President Obama to use the “bully-pulpit” of the White House to focus attention on a neglected part of US society and to deliver an intelligent rallying cry.