There has been a subtle shift in the last several years in the ways we talk about nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit sector is discussed as an important cornerstone of civil society, a site for civic engagement, a place to build social capital, and a measure of a democratic society. The emphasis on the blurring of the boundaries between nonprofits and government or business is now giving way to a renewed argument about the unique contributions nonprofit groups make to the society overall. There are several explanations for why this turn is taking place. This article will focus on one: the need for revitalization of democracy in the United States.
Over the years, we in the U.S. have assumed that we have one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. The evidence for this remains high, but recent events have raised questions about what it means to live in a democratic country. For example, less than half of eligible voters participated in the 2000 presidential election, and the results of the election itself are highly controversial. Newly enacted and proposed federal legislation and regulations not only raise questions about civil liberties, but they also have the potential to profoundly affect charitable organizations, including operating nonprofits.
What does this mean for nonprofit organizations? Those running nonprofits know how often we have to adjust the explanations of our work to address passing fads or a new interest area by funders. Many will view an emphasis on organizations as sites of civic engagement and democratic practices as one more attempt to repackage organizations. However, for those who believe that nonprofits really can make a difference by enhancing democratic practice in the U.S., thinking about what it means to change how we operate so that we build democracy from the ground up is not simply an opportunity, but a necessity. It also gives those of us working in the sector a vital role, and has the potential to reenergize our work during a time when many organizations are struggling to survive.