Philanthropy journal – Social capital – Joining hands

By Todd Cohen

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel about a whaling ship, a vital piece of gear was the “monkey rope” – a kind of safety cord that tied a harpooner straddling a dead whale to an oarsman in the harpooner’s boat.

One hundred fifty years later, reminded by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that we are indeed intertwined, Americans have joined hands to lift up victims of the attacks.

While that’s only a short-term fix to an immediate crisis, however, the lessons of the past five weeks also can help shape long-term solutions to the huge social ills troubling America.

The key is collaboration.

In his recent study of the social networks in three-dozen U.S. cities, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam found Americans drifting apart from one another.

Our civic connectedness – what Putnam calls “social capital” – is eroding. We don’t trust one another. We stick to our own kind and the institutions we know. We are religious and generous, but we take few risks.

But if we are going to solve the problems facing America, we have to learn to stick our necks out for one another.

We need to find ways to work together more closely, to build on networks we already have created, to connect groups that operate in isolation or are separated by race or class.

In the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, individual groups can team up, pool their limited resources, share ideas and know-how, and have a greater impact than they would have had working alone.

In Massachusetts, for example, a group of executive directors have learned how their nonprofits can make better use of technology – and how they can lead their own organizations in embracing technology – through a leadership development program that connects the executive directors to one another and to their own staffs.

In North Carolina, a handful of private, community and corporate foundations are looking for ways to work together by sharing information, teaming up to talk about common problems facing the state and pooling funds to have greater impact.

And to encourage local collaboration to address local problems, national foundations are working together to create funding pools that match funds contributed by state and regional foundations.

These are not isolated examples, but they are not commonplace, either.

Innovation has been a hallmark of American philanthropy, which itself serves both as our social safety net and society’s research-and-development arm.

That innovation has been possible in large part because philanthropy is independent.

But as the social problems we face — poverty, racism, violence, poor health, illiteracy – grow more interconnected and seemingly unsolvable, we need to find innovative ways to put our heads and shoulders together.

Doing business in the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds need to be based on teamwork, thinking and working as independent members of the same crew.

We can go “bowling alone,” as Robert Putnam characterizes the breakdown in our civic networks, or we can pull together, weaving a social “monkey rope” that helps us share the job of healing and repairing our communities.

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