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Nonprofit leaders call for new social compact

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By Ret Boney

WASHINGTON, D.C. — America’s social compact is broken and the charitable sector must work for its repair, prominent nonprofit leaders said at a conference of the nonprofit sector.

Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national network of nonprofits, opened the group’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., with an exhortation to frank and honest dialogue.

“The social compact that has historically bound us one to the other seems now dangerously frayed, in urgent need not only of restatement but of reshaping,” she said.

The social compact is the relationships and understandings that connect Americans to each other as well as to the government, to business and to civic and nonprofit groups, Aviv said.

While many ideas already exist on how to improve the social compact, Aviv said, ideas alone are not the answer.

“To improve the social compact, we need an agreement among Americans on what our responsibilities are to each other,” Aviv told the group of nearly 1,000 attendees from the nonprofit sector.

“And the only way to reach that kind of agreement, in my view, is through a conversation entered into freely and conducted with respect and understanding,” she said.

She referred to the crisis in America as one of the “absent middle” that could not be heard amid the partisan fighting of the far left and far right sides of the political spectrum.

That absent middle must be part of a national conversation including people from all communities to discuss and develop plans for dealing with critical issues, she said, including poverty, the environment, reducing the federal budget deficit, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Government will always play a major role in the nation’s social compact, Aviv said, a role she said Americans expect but that is only one part of the social compact.

To reinvent that social compact, Aviv said, America must have a “doctrine of four estates,” which includes engaged citizens, a rich and diverse network of charitable groups, a business sector that is responsible to stakeholders as well as shareholders, and an honest government that listens.

Panel members responding to Aviv’s remarks agreed that the social compact is in trouble.

“We’re in a period of vast change,” said Hodding Carter, former head of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami and board member of Independent Sector.

“What is afoot is the deliberate, systematic, calculated undoing of the social compact that began with the New Deal and ended with Lyndon Johnson,” he said.

The current national conversation is one-sided, Carter said, and must involve those who have been left out.

“If we are to have dialogue, those of us in this sector need to empower the voices of today’s Martin Luther Kings,” he said.  “The business of that great revolution is unfinished.  We need to make sure the new unheard voices are heard.”

The business and government sectors have roles as well, nonprofit leaders said.

“The role of corporate foundations is to enable and empower folks to help those living alongside them,” said Patricia Diaz Dennis, senior vice president and assistant general counsel for SBC.

Stanley Litow, president of the IBM Foundation, said much of what government should do is to “support the voluntary sector in doing their job,” adding that the public, voluntary, business and education sectors all need to do a better job.

Independent Sector planned to convene its first meeting to an effort Aviv said would involve leaders representing different sectors and different political perspectives.

The group can be replicated around the country to continue the discussion, she said.

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