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'A New Era'

January 21, 2009

(Michael Seltzer is a veteran of the nonprofit and foundation worlds and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic.)

Obama_inaugural_speechBarack Obama hit a number of high notes in his sober but stirring inaugural address. For those of us who were drawn to a life of service in the 1960s, however, the phrase "re-imagining America's solutions" had particular resonance.

Like many of my fellow boomers, the social problems I saw all around me in the '60s pushed me toward ideology in a search for solutions. But after stints in Operation Crossroads Africa (1966) and VISTA (1967, 1968-69), I soon realized that the quickest road to workable solutions started with an understanding of the life experiences of others. If we were able to bring about real change in this country and elsewhere, as we did, it was because we understood and related to the aspirations of those who were disenfranchised, marginalized, and most vulnerable.

Barack Obama is an heir to and believer in that legacy. And he shares our desire for new responses to old problems, whether the issue is poverty, injustice, or intolerance. In Barack Obama's world, ideas, even unpopular ones, are treated with respect. But the goal is solutions, and for our new president solutions grounded in and shaped by practice are better than those informed by ideology alone. 

His inaugural speech made that clear and serves, in effect, to re-establish the partnership between the nonprofit and public sectors. Voluntary organizations have always served as vehicles for concerted action in this country's civic arena. They embody our nation's most noble ideals and do much, on a daily basis, to make America a better place, for all Americans. In calling for a "new era of responsibility," President Obama is asking us --nonprofits, foundations, and faith-based organizations -- to find new ways to engage the public in the continuing struggle for peace, social justice, and equal opportunity, and to communicate our efforts more broadly and effectively to our fellow citizens.

That this challenge has been presented to us at a time when many more people are in need and our staffs and budgets are strained is unfortunate. But we can ill-afford to ignore the path that our president has pointed to. As he took pains to note yesterday, "it is the both the price and the promise of citizenship."

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Scott Rooks  |   January 22, 2009 at 09:20 PM

Well said Michael.

I would like to point out that even with our budgets strained and the economy on its knees we, the nonprofit industry are the ones that the disenfrancized, marginalized and most vulnerable know who to turn to and our President knows it also.

It is very definitely "A New Era".

Thanks for putting this together so eloquently, it speaks well to the masses.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   January 24, 2009 at 01:11 PM

Thanks, as always, for the post, Michael. Clearly, there's a hunger in this country for something beyond the material and everyday, and you're absolutely correct in characterizing BHO's inaugural speech as the beginning of a new era ("the first presidency of the 21st century," as the head of one Democratic advocacy group put it in New York magazine). I wonder, though, whether the public-private partnerships he has in mind will resemble the coalitions that achieved so much in the '60s and '70s, or will they end up looking different? Status-quo power relationships and mechanisms of control are being dissolved by demographic changes and the onslaught of new technologies, and Obama -- the first politician to surf the digital wave all the way to the White House -- has adeptly exploited the disruptive nature of these trends.

What am I trying to say? Simply that the same forces and trends that helped put BHO in the White House are likley to transform nonprofits and the nonprofit sector over the next ten years. I can't remember where I read it, but I agree with the report which argues that the smallest and largest NPOs will benefit from these disruptive trends while those in the middle get squeezed. For sure, the number of NPOs will shrink. And the structure of individual organizations is likely to become "flatter" and more flexible. New organizations will form quickly around a specific issue or project -- and disband just as quickly once the project has been wrapped up or issue-related goals have been met. Or maybe not.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that the nonprofit sector as we've known it for the last thirty years is a relic of a different time and set of circumstances and is headed the way of the combustion engine and the coal-burning power plant. The change will be evolutionary (though at an accelerated rate) rather than revolutionary, but change there will be. And how should those of us in the sector respond? Well, maybe the best advice is to take a cue from our new president and ride the wave, baby.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   January 25, 2009 at 09:55 AM


I have been thinking about the issues that you have wisely raised. Certainly, it cannot be an era of 'business as usual' for both nonprofits and foundations. We are going to need to create new ways of operating in light of both the opportunities posed by the new administration and the economic quagmire that we are in.

Organizations may need to be leaner and more nimble, and more inventive in their use of volunteer professionals and their outreach to the public through Web 2.0 technologies, for example.

Once we navigate budget cuts, staff layoffs, downsizing and other painful adjustments, we hopefully can turn our attention to envisioning new ways of working.

Michael Seltzer

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   January 25, 2009 at 10:13 AM

Thank you, Scott, for your comment.

Let me add that we must not forget that we bear a special responsibility to bring to the public's attention the stories of those most negatively affected by the economic downturn.

To use a religious phrase, we 'bear witness' to their hard times--both the 'old poor' and the 'new poor', to quote Geoffrey Canada-- and policy-makers at every level need to hear their voices when they make decisions affecting people's lives.

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