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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

November 8, 2010 at 7:51 AM

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DIY social services? Big society in the age of shrinking budgets

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle is a place rich in ideas and energy for social innovation. Can such innovation help overcome a massive deficit in resources? That is a question being asked locally and abroad, where British Prime Minister David Cameron has articulated his vision of a "Big Society." Doing more with less means handing over some traditional government functions to citizens.

This region has created new kinds of volunteer groups such as Seattle Works and BEAN, as well as large established charities like the Seattle Foundation, the United Way of King County (which continually leads the nation in fund raising), and Seattle Rotary 4 (the largest Rotary Club in the world), as well as countless other organizations that work to improve the community. Could such groups also run the post office or the library?

The Northwest has made a name for itself through new hybrids and collaborations involving nonprofits, philanthropists, private enterprise and government.


Volunteers wash the feet of homeless people at the United Way Day of Caring at Qwest Field on Sept. 24. The event attracted more than 10,000 volunteers and served about 2,000 people, twice as many as last year.

That's what brought a young government official from London here to study innovative partnerships between social enterprises and state and local government. He traveled to Seattle, Portland and Vancouver BC and focused on health and human services.

In Britain, he explained, bridging political gaps required conservatives and progressives to find something they both liked, whether that meant less government spending or more power for citizens.

"When you take Conservative plans to strengthen families and encourage social responsibility and add them to the Liberal Democrat passion for protecting our civil liberties and stopping the relentless incursion of the state into the lives of individuals, you create a big society matched by big citizens," Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg wrote in describing the plan.

Here, the U.S. Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation has a similar approach, offering funding and other "social capital market structures" to encourage grassroots solutions.

In practice, a business called Participle offers an interesting example. It's out to redefine the relationship between individuals, communities and government, and create ways for people to get involved and give more meaning to their lives.

One of its projects in London is a social enterprise called Southwark Circle, a membership organization and social network designed by and for older people that links neighbors to help them solve practical problems. Members can request services, such as home repairs, gardening and computer help, by calling a toll free number. Local people in the neighborhood are employed to provide the services, and volunteers can also join.

Imagine how it might work in parts of Seattle undergoing socioeconomic shifts, where seniors on fixed incomes are living like "shut-ins," next door to a newer population of upwardly mobile young people.

A critique of the project points out that many residents of poor neighborhoods have a deficit of time as well as money, and big society will only work if it can promote social justice and narrow inequalities.

With state, county and city budget cuts looming, such an approach may have some appeal. A project like Southwark Circle probably wouldn't save money in the short term, though, since getting it started requires a substantial investment.

More corporations and nonprofits are already taking on some of the work, including sponsoring historic renovations, rebuilding school libraries and funding job services. Recently Target volunteers and the Heart of America Foundation renovated the library at Gatzert Elementary. Bank of America is funding the Seattle Jobs Initiative and YouthCare, and American Express paid for the preservation of historic buildings selected by popular vote. These partnerships are taking on a formula of nonprofit leadership, corporate funding and engagement of the local community.

An opinion piece here challenges philanthropy to welcome the grassroots activism of the Tea Party movement.

Back in the U.K., Clegg talked about how difficult funding decisions have become. "But if we work together, and do innovative things," he said, "then a sense of optimism will replace the current fear in life today."

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