CNJG: Our Democracy Needs Our Problem Solvers

January 18, 2017

white house

I’m acutely aware that I’m writing this blog the week our new president will be sworn in. It is that event that has me thinking a lot about Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal book Democracy in America as we once again observe the peaceful transition of power.

I am also a “Hamilton” junkie so I keep reminding myself of what this means as I listen to Washington’s schooling to Hamilton in the song “One Last Time” about how the transition will prove our country’s strength. And for those that haven’t had a chance to see Hamilton yet, I offer a little School House Rock help to remind us how we got here.

Hamiton’s “One Last Time:”

School House Rock:

In his book, Tocqueville spoke of what I believe is one the greatest examples of our country’s and our democracy’s strength – our associations. What he calls associations, we now refer to as our social sector.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.

It seems he may have found our desire to associate in this way a bit excessive but it is clear he envies and finds value in our ability to unite, to come together, to build, to care for our citizens, to solve problems. Today, the social sector in America is more robust than ever — and more essential.

My colleague Tim Delaney at the National Council of Nonprofits speaks often about how it is the social sector that are  the “incubators of innovation, laboratories of leadership, protectors of taxpayers, responders in times of trouble, stimulators of the economy, and weavers of community fabric.” Those of us working in charities are the problem solvers making a difference every day in every city and town across this country.

There is a lot of talk lately about how the “disruptors” are so important to our economy, our society — and they are. However, please remember that nonprofits were among the original disruptors and they are still at it.

There is a vital thread through the group training young women how to code and young men in construction trades to the Community Development Corporation creating a state of the art early child learning center, from organization training immigrant entrepreneurs to the one designing transportation alternatives for the elderly.

Tocqueville wrote his book over 180 years ago; so much still holds true.  We do unite and our associations, our social sector is at the heart of that practice.

As a new President arrives and we ready for a new New Jersey Governor next year, the time has never been more important for all those working in community, in education and healthcare, the environment and criminal justice, in elder care and child advancement, to fully claim our titles and our realm as problem solvers.



Nina Stack is President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 130 funding organizations working in and for New Jersey.

The Council is the center for philanthropy in the state, serving the leading independent, corporate, family and community foundations as well as public grantmakers of our state. CNJG supports its members by strengthening their capacity to address New Jersey and society’s most difficult problems.

Photo at top: Creative Commons/ Stefan Fussan