Civil Society as Public Conscience

Larry Kramer at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Does civil society address questions of values in ways that government and business cannot? This question makes sense if we presuppose limits on the values government and business can express. However, there are no such limits, as evidenced by the way both sectors have, throughout US history, taken positions and played roles on all sides of our nation’s great moral and political debates. This is hardly surprising inasmuch as “government” and “business,” no less than “civil society,” comprise a multiplicity of actors with widely divergent interests, passions, and beliefs. The principle of federalism is built on the idea (well-established empirically) that different governments, operating at different levels and in different places, will respond to problems differently, creating multiple channels for competitive democratic action. Likewise, the competitiveness of the marketplace ensures that, with rare exceptions, there are business interests on different sides of most questions.

Yet while government and business may not be monoliths, their decisions and actions are subject to predictable, systematic forms of distortion….

What sets civil society organizations apart is that they are free from precisely the forces that limit actors in government and business; they are neither responsible to voters nor (usually) restricted by market discipline. They can be entirely mission driven, which gives them the freedom to test controversial ideas, develop challenging positions, and advocate for change based wholly on the magnitude and meaning of an issue or objective. As important, they can use this freedom to intervene with government or business in ways that overcome or circumvent the obstacles that bias these sectors’ decisions and activities. Short-term pressures may make it difficult for government agencies to invest in experiments, for example, but they can take up proven concepts. Civil society organizations can establish the necessary proof and, within legal limits, help overcome political barriers that may block adoption. Nonprofit activity may likewise be able to correct market defects or foster conditions that encourage deeper business investment. Nonprofit leaders can take risks that government agents and business managers dependably shy away from, and they can stay with efforts that take time to show results.

More profoundly, nonprofits have the freedom to play the role of “prodder,” of idea advocate, of irritant to systems that need to be irritated. Civil society can be our public conscience, helping make sure that we do not turn our back on fundamental values, or forget about those who lack market and political power.

There is a rub, of course (there’s always a rub). Civil society organizations may be free from political and market discipline, but only by subjecting themselves to the whims and caprice of philanthropic funders. This alternative distortion is to some extent blunted by the pluralistic, decentralized nature of the funder community; there are a great many funders out there, and they represent a broad range of ideologies, interests, and viewpoints. But the flaws in this system are many and well known. Scrambling for dollars is time consuming and difficult, and most funders restrict their support while failing to cover a grantees’ full costs. Awkward differences between how funders and grantees understand a problem or think it should be addressed are common. Nonprofits understandably feel that funders sometimes undervalue their expertise and front-line experience, while funders just as understandably feel responsible for making independent judgments about how nonprofits should use their resources. And while the funder community is more pluralistic than its critics allow, many viewpoints and approaches indubitably fail to find support—sometimes for worse, as well as for better…(More)”.