Fresh Eyes: Our mania for associations

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Patrick Harmanby Patrick Harman

One of the more famous quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s treatises on America concerns nonprofits, although they were not named as such in the 1830s. De Tocqueville stated: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition, are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.”

He considered these associations critical in a democratic society, stating that “in democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.” So the “art of associating” is vital to a civil society, improving it, and critical to a vibrant democracy.

So, where are we today in regard to these types of organizations?

The good news is that, in the United States, there are still many associations doing all sorts of things. The National Center for Charitable Statistics has created a taxonomy of exempt entities with 25 major categories from “housing and shelter” to “medical research.” Under these major categories, there are hundreds and hundreds of subcategories.

Clearly, there is no shortage of diversity of the types of organizations trying to improve the state of our country and others around the world.

A report by the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy tells us that there are approximately 1.4 million charitable nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS. Counting churches, which do not have to register, the figure is around 1.6 million. The number of all types of nonprofit organizations grew by 27 percent from 1994 to 2004.

The nonprofit sector now accounts for about 5 percent of the gross domestic product and approximately 8 percent of wages and salaries paid in United States. The total assets from the nonprofit sector grew 90 percent from 1994 to 2004.

So, now we know that there are lots of organizations doing lots of things but how are people fitting into all of this activity?

Several years ago, Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a book about his research on civic engagement in America. His findings showed that Americans were becoming more disconnected from one another, joining fewer organizations (like bowling leagues) and having less trust in others.

This reduction in “social capital,” the connections among individuals and the benefits that flow between them — such as reciprocity, collective action, solidarity and trust — has large implications for our society.

Surveys in 2000 and 2006 examined social-capital trends in communities around America. Thanks to the Winston-Salem Foundation and several Greensboro grantmakers, who helped sponsor the studies, we know how we are doing in the Triad.

The studies found both positive and negative trends in our communities. On the positive side, Greensboro and Winston-Salem residents give at a higher rate than the national average in both small and larger donations. Residents of both cities increased their rate of volunteerism in both religious and non-religious organizations since the beginning of the decade. Consequently, this rate is also higher than the national average.

On the negative side, Greensboro folks have less trust of others in 2006 than they did in 2000, which wasn’t all that high to begin with. The converse was true in Winston-Salem.

In Winston-Salem, African-Americans trust their neighbors significantly less than whites do. This gap, although similar, was smaller in Greensboro.

How can we increase our social capital to maximize our strengths and to address our weaknesses? The people at the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University have developed a list of 150 things you can do to build social capital. Take a look at it online (bettertogether.org/150ways.htm). You will likely find a few things you are already doing (like No. 106, just by reading this column!) but pick out a couple a new ones to try out. As Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

Patrick Harman is the executive director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation, which is making sustained financial and social investments in the Washington Street commercial district and nearby residences in High Point.