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Philanthropy Journal – Not much has changed

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By Todd Cohen

Americans have failed to keep our vow that Sept. 11 would change how we live and work.

So before it’s too late, we need to move quickly to revive our civic health – a job for which nonprofits and philanthropies must play a critical role.

First, remember what the attacks should have taught us. Shocked and confused, we caught a brief glimpse of America’s civic mess and the huge job, long neglected, that we had to do to fix our communities.

Responding immediately, we mourned the victims, pitched in to help the survivors and families of the dead, and backed President Bush in his crusade against terrorism.

But then we watched in frustration and anger as big charities botched the job of handing out millions of dollars Americans had donated to the relief effort.

We sank even deeper as Bush armed for war while dismantling social programs, civil liberties and environmental protections that had taken decades to create – and as big corporations and the Catholic Church abused their constituents’ trust.

One year later, as Bruce Springsteen puts it in his new 9/11 album, “everybody acts like nothing’s changed.”

Sept. 11 should have tolled the alarm, warning and inspiring us to roll up our sleeves and join hands in finding ways to rid ourselves of racism, poverty, poor health, illiteracy and the other ills that engulf us – all rooted in a breakdown in the civic glue that once held our communities together.

For the charitable world, the challenge was and remains critical. Despite their money and know-how, and scattered efforts to be more effective and innovative, many nonprofits and philanthropies are mired in old ways of doing business, smitten with trendy ideas for funding and programs, and fearful of giving up turf.

In the wake of the attacks, the charitable world had a rare chance to shake itself awake and learn to work smarter and better.

But instead of embracing innovation and collaboration, nonprofits simply raced to invoke Sept. 11 as a fundraising theme, repeated endlessly, to coax dollars from donors.

It is not too late to change. If charities want to help heal and repair our communities, they must start by fixing themselves and learning to team up with one another and with businesses, government agencies and colleges and universities.

From managing organizations and delivering services to raising money and fostering new leaders, charities have to take stock of how they work and find new ways to do business.

Change is risky, but to be more effective in carrying out the jobs they were created to take on, nonprofits and philanthropies must take risks.

After telling us a year ago we needed to sacrifice, President Bush has asked us to do little more than tolerate longer lines at airports and dig deeper into our own pockets to pick up the huge tab he doesn’t want to pay to lend a hand to those living on the margins of society.

The biggest sacrifice the charitable world can make is to invest time, money and know-how in changing itself and finding ways to truly share the job of addressing the crushing issues we face in common.

Failing to take that risk betrays the promise – the dream sprung from the nightmare of Sept. 11 – of caring and compassionate community.

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