Why Civility Matters to the Social Sector

May 9, 2012

Next month, members of New Jersey’s social sector will gather for a conversation that some might think an unusual topic for nonprofits and foundations – civility. It is, however, a critical discussion for our sector.

Over the years, the loss of civility in our society has been spreading like a slow-moving cancer. Growing undetected and weakening our communities, our relationships, our democracy. For the social sector – mission-driven organizations — the implications of this sickness are profound and debilitating.

Consider those working to improve education outcomes for our children. If students are trying to learn and mature in an environment with hostility and bullying, then the cards are stacked against them in a very real and tangible sense. How can one explore, imagine or participate when fearing ridicule? And now, with the explosion of social media, bullying has expanded from the schoolyard to the home.

Consider the service provider suddenly caught in the buzz saw of slanderous rhetoric used by media pundits who manufacture a “wedge issue” to gain attention and feed the 24-hour news cycle. The nonprofit, with limited capacity and a client base who depends on them for services, now scrambles to respond. Donors flee. And the critical services and the clients who need them suffer.

Consider the need to solve the serious problems – the wicked problems — our communities and country face. To address these issues, it means policymakers have to come together. They must negotiate and compromise. Without civility, without an appreciation of other points of view and a commitment to find the shared path – change at the policy level becomes impossible. The polarization of our government leaders means a paralyzed democracy.

On June 15th, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers’ Spring Colloquium will explore this issue during our 3rd Biennial Conversation on the Social Sector – From Schoolyard Bullying and Culture Wars to a Polarized Democracy: What Role Can Philanthropy Play in Restoring Civility to our Society?

A vibrant group of participants will bring diverse perspectives on this topic for what promises to be a dynamic conversation. Chris Satullo, Vice President of News and Civil Dialogue at WHYY will moderate the discussion between Cathy Raphael, Chair of the Ms. Foundation for Women; K. Anthony Appiah Ph.D., Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University; and David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. The range of our panelists’ varied experiences, backgrounds and professional vocations is sure to stimulate and inspire our conversation.

Thoughtful discussion and civil discourse is how we as a nation problem-solve and reach conclusions. When conversations are skewed by “my-way-or-the highway” mentalities, or an unwillingness to hear what another is saying, our civil discourse evaporates and collectively we suffer.

I invite you to join the conversation at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick for what is sure to be a fascinating and much needed discussion. The event is open to the public and details can be found at www.cnjg.org.

Nina Stack is the President of Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association for corporate, family, independent, and community foundations. She is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog.

Image courtesy CNJG