Choosing Better Partners for a Better Society


By John G. Fike, EMU MPA nonprofit administration lecturer

A government’s choice of partners shapes the society it governs. The subservience of the American state to the objectives of enterprise, under the banner of the “private-public partnership,” has established an informal global economic empire. It has also fostered neoliberal “shock-doctrine” economic policies that, while making the world safe for investors, have made it a good deal less secure for others.

Our corporate business partners demand cuts to welfare state programs and lower taxes for themselves. They seek the privilege of managing government assets for their own gain, while maintaining a narrow focus on shareholder demand for constant growth at any price. They have made fiscal austerity, unlimited trade, capital expansion and wealth accumulation the chief strategies of our domestic and foreign policy.

Consequently, our leaders now turn a blind eye to corporate recklessness, cronyism and the buying of elections. Our business partners have removed the hand of our citizens from government decisions, and have led us to abandon longstanding traditions of a vibrant middle class, respect for labor, strong regulation to protect our citizens, and an emphasis on corporate community responsibility.

The much-touted “private-public partnership” has, therefore, lost its legitimacy, because it has downgraded and divided our citizens and made our nation a pariah in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. It’s time to bid farewell to a “partnership” based solely on marketplace values.

Fortunately, a much better partnering opportunity is at hand. Voluntary charitable organizations have, since our founding, proven to be capable and trustworthy partners whose values are more compatible with the objectives of good governance and a healthy society than are those of enterprise. There are two reasons why such a partnership serves our democracy better.

First, both governance and voluntarism embrace the well-being of the people. Both prize empathy, service, equality, diversity and pluralism. Nonprofits often compensate for the state’s majority-rule constraint by meeting the needs of those excluded when the majority has its way. Nonprofits are freer to experiment with new service methods and technologies. They teach civic duties and strengthen citizen engagement and a sense of obligation. Nonprofits also represent a ready source of local citizen input for government decision-making processes.

Second, the government-nonprofit partnership unites the concepts of citizen duty and philanthropy — the love of humankind. Whereas the unbridled self-interest of market culture has dissolved the people’s connection to civic obligation and voluntarism, that bond is renewed when government joins with nonprofits. People see that the services they need and use are directly connected to their taxes and their giving. Self-interest is shaped by the need for strong, vibrant communities. Attitudes of dismay and disgust are replaced by engagement with political representatives when government decision-making is returned to the people.

Over the next two generations the government-nonprofit partnership has the potential to drive the systemic social change so urgently needed to rid society of some of its major ills. We could find new effectiveness as a nation in removing the root causes of poverty, homelessness, hunger, drug-abuse and economic inequality. We could put an end to the economic and political polarization that now poisons our individual attitudes and our society.

What we need is a creative approach, one that reinvigorates the public-nonprofit partnership. Such an effort could change the way we solve social problems. We need a new metric for gauging social change, and a new language to express it — no more talk of “return on investment,” “maximization,” or “growth.” We need citizens once again to work together, meet each other’s needs, develop a sense of solidarity, and find meaning in life as they change how our society functions. Nurturing the values of self-sacrifice, hope, mutuality and social trust and cooperation can be done by strengthening the nonprofit-government partnership.

It won’t be easy, but if we are able to fully engage a different kind of partner, we won’t need to limit ourselves to a restrictive and divisive “economic globalization” that makes the world safe only for investors. We could direct our efforts toward the globalization of community and social development, which would, in turn, bring Earth’s resources and wealth to all the world’s people, not just a few. Our choice of partners does make a difference.

With 28 years of working with nonprofit organizations throughout Michigan, John G. Fike, CFRE, teaches nonprofit administration in the EMU MPA Program.

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