The Big Thaw

As the last bands marched past the White House reviewing stand, exhausted revellers made their way around abandoned barricades to metro stations, prepared for a long ride home.  TV journalists were still filing stories up around Union Station, the Capitol in the background glowing like tungsten, clean and white hot in the dark.  T-shirt and button sellers were hawking at discounts of 50% to dwindling crowds, then resignedly shoving their wares into bags and disappearing into the dark.

Just as many went down the escalators to trains bound for home, a second shift was arriving in high heels and party dresses for the official inaugural balls, where the first couple took the stage to the night’s theme song, “At Last.”

It was 22 degrees Farenheit.  Never was Washington so warm.

Just six hours earlier, when jubilation was in greater supply than romance, President Barack Obama made an address that challenged the public to a new level of responsibility.  Not unlike his campaign themes, he talked about the “price and promise of citizenship.”  He was talking to us, although he did not call us by name.

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.  It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.  It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

This public exhortation to service, delivered to us so personally, making so many feel compelled to take action, was the very element most unique to the Obama candidacy.  Very few presidents have reached out and told us that this was the moment when we could own our individual destinies.  That is both empowering and compelling.

For us as fundraisers, this is also a critical opportunity.

There are now millions of Americans who feel that they can and should do something which will define their lives.  They are energized not just by the new president but by the change that they themselves can make.  And they will be looking for ways to use that energy.  Where will they turn?

As a former community organizer and non-profit board member, the President understands that government cannot and will not provide an avenue for this type of community work.  At the same time, he also knows that it is more effective to appeal to us on a personal basis-to encourage Americans to “find meaning in something greater than themselves”-than merely to tell us to go out and volunteer at a local organization.

We can step in and make clear exactly how individuals, energized by this dramatic political change, can work with us to make a better America in the midst of economic crisis.  In doing so, we would be providing a valuable service.  There is an audience ready to take action-our organizations can provide an avenue through which to make change possible.

One cautionary note: Nonprofits must be prepared to share the reigns of power in order to successfully mine this opportunity.

The campaign has emboldened people.  They are now agents of change.  They will not be satisfied with long-term solutions and entrenched establishments.  They will want opportunities to make positive change happen in internet-time and they will want to be a part of making it happen.  They will also want organizations to accurately reflect them in word and deed, from the diversity of their boards and staff to the communities they serve.

For some organizations, this isn’t a change at all-it will merely be a matter of conveying what they already do to a new and enthusiastic audience.  For others, it will be a choice as perilous as generational shift itself.

As the President said, “our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed.  Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

The opportunity raised by this new charge to participate in national service is not only local, it’s global as well.

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

Who will take on this task?  Will it be nation building by an already overstretched military?  Or perhaps the work of the State Department, the Agency for International Development or the Peace Corps?

Clearly, US NGOs, together with their foundation and indigenous NGO partners, will be central to this activity.  The money for it will be both governmental and private philanthropic support.  We can wait for the grant deadlines and apply or we can take the lead, supported by the good will and bully pulpit of the presidency, and raise the hours and the dollars from an energized and hopeful electorate.

As fundraisers, we are always looking for ways to grow what we do.  Here now is just such an opportunity.  The warm light the new president has shown on the services we provide, together with a river of potential volunteers and donors emboldened by their own potential, will make possible for a great thaw between the nonprofit world and government.

One where cooperation is not as much about access to government funds as it is to building trust with a waking giant: an American people who realize that the difference between dreaming and doing is merely saying, “yes, I can.”

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Want to learn more about the service initiative of the new administration?  Go to USAService.org.

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