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Give Local America Day Gets Charity Right

May 06, 2014

By Howard Husock

Today (May 6) is Give Local America Day, a 24-hour on-line give-athon meant to link hundreds of thousands (or millions!) of small donors to some 7,000 local non-profits across the U.S. It may seem like an obvious, even anodyne, idea. It's not. It's an idea that very much deserves support. The combination of local organizations–both managed and supported locally and founded to address local needs–is not only distinctively American but as important and relevant today as it's ever been.

The roots of local non-profits, supported by charity and volunteers, run deep in America. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

Underlying this tradition is the American tradition of localism–of communities whose governance, education and social needs are addressed by engaged citizens. It's a a traditional taken for granted in the Untied States but which demands to be seen as distinctive. Localities in America raises and distribute their own taxes, oversee their public schools–and develop all manner of organizations for specific charitable causes, whether to help the poor or build a monument. In Boston, the famed Bunker Hill Monument, for instance, was financed, in part, by neighborhood bake sales.

In recent years, however, this tradition has been cast as charming but inadequate to meeting the scale of contemporary social needs. The replacement model–with roots in the Progressive Era but definitively established by the Great Society in the 1960s–is one in which non-profits, whether to help pre-school children learn or young mothers to get adequate nutrition, become contractors to government, supported by “categorical” grants which dictate their approach. Overseers in Washington, or state capitals, oversee the work.

Yet somehow the impulse to approach problems locally has persisted–in no small part because its bureaucratic successor has not worked well. Even as we've spent billions on Head Start, for instance, the education achievement gap between children of the rich and those of the poor has persisted.

Such failures just add to the case for Give Local America Day. Locally-chartered and supported organizations attracted talented, idealistic leaders–who would rather not be bureaucrats. Crucially–and in contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of Washington-led efforts–they develop approaches adapted to local communities.

In my 15 years of work as the director of the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative at the Manhattan Institute–through which we scout the country for great local non-profits which can serve as inspirations to others–I've found dozens of worthy groups whose approaches are both original and effective. In New Jersey, the New Jersey Orators address the racial achievement gap through after-school classes and contests in public speaking. In Austin, English at Work helps new immigrants advance by offering English classes at restaurants, hotels and hospitals where immigrants are employed. In New York, Getting Out and Staying Out shows that it's possible to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders. In St. Louis, The Mission Continues has found better ways to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Boston, Beacon Hill Village has developed a model designed to help the elderly continue to live independently. In Marietta, Ohio, in that state's Appalachian region, the Ely Chapman Foundation has recycled an abandoned high school for after-school classes designed to re-instill hope, and the work ethic, in a troubled community. (See my article in City Journal on founder Alice Chapman). They are all very much worthy of Give Local support.

This does not mean that good ideas should be limited to one community. Local champions in other places can take up the approach–and adapt it to their own communities, calling on local support and building their own local boards of directors for oversight. That's what happened with the early 20th-century settlement house movement which, without government support, helped to integrate that era's huge wave of immigrants–through local organizations in more than 400 cities. It's happening today, as the effective approach started–and disseminated– by Cincinnati Works to helping the disadvantage get and keep jobs spreads to other cities. There is a temptation to believe that the combination of funding and scale will ensure that everyone in need will be taken care of–and taken care of well. That's what's led to what can be understood as the government takeover of social services. But reach is not the same as grasp–and Give Local Day makes clear that Americans implicitly understand that every community is different and demands distinctive approaches and locall leadership. It's a tradition worth celebrating–and continuing to support.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2014/05/06/give-local-america-day-gets-charity-right/

 

 
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