By Jenny Rempel
Course syllabi do not often include the assignment to give away $100,000, but when I walked into Bruce Sievers’ Theories of Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Nonprofit Sector seven weeks ago, there it was. My classmates and I were thrilled, enthusiastic and a little nervous. We accepted the challenge.
We have since spent the quarter reviewing hundreds of nonprofits in the Bay Area. Our class has broken into four teams focusing on separate issue areas (not surprisingly, I ended up on the “Health and Environment” team), each one crafting pseudo-mission statements, researching potential recipients and soliciting grant proposals. My team is beginning our first round of site visits and interviews today.
It has been an eye-opening process. Simply scrolling through all 25 Bay Area organizations listed under “Food” on GreatNonprofits.org gives one confidence in the power of civil society. When combined with the 68 nonprofits under “Environment” and the 67 organizations under “Health,” it’s clear that there are a lot of individuals in the Bay Area working for positive change.
The class has not focused solely on grants, however. Under the exciting announcement of our $100,000 assignment, the syllabus detailed a list of readings that would ground us in the theories and practices of civil society. Coming from Earth Systems and walking into PoliSci 236, I was a little confused about what exactly “civil society” meant. The term has many rough synonyms, including “the independent sector,” “nongovernmental organizations” and “the nonprofit world,” all of which served as labelers that I don’t find very fitting. The terms “charitable realm” and “voluntary service organizations” impute a bit more meaning and value, but are still a bit confusing.
The term “civil society” is inherently amorphous, but to me — and probably Professor Sievers, to whom this definition should really be credited — civil society embodies the realm of nonprofits, foundations and philanthropy, as well as the set of institutions and normative values that enable these entities’ existences, namely protection of individual rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, commitment to the common good and tolerance.
The term is still up for debate, particularly as the lines between the government sector, the for-profit sector and the “third sector” (civil society) blur in America. The purposes and goals of civil society shimmer in a mirage-like state, whereby many different actors can see different goals for a sector that operates at the confluence of private and public interests. One goal that is commonly mentioned, though not necessarily agreed upon, is the concept that civil society organizations exist for the provision of public goods that would otherwise be unsupplied by the other two sectors.
Judging from the sheer number of organizations working to ensure that individuals in the Bay Area are being fed, I’d say civil society has adopted food as an otherwise underprovided public good. Given that most of the 25 organizations under “Food” are food banks, this doesn’t seem too far-fetched. In fact, there are many neat civil society organizations operating in the food sphere, although their size and funding often limit their power to achieve change and guarantee food access.
The very existence of this array of food and hunger-based nonprofits reveals a sad fact: The U.S. government does not view access to food as a fundamental right. If it did, nonprofits wouldn’t be stumbling over each other to enter into the food sphere and ensure this basic public good.
Further evidence that the government does not view food access as a fundamental right came from the House Budget Committee last week. The GOP proposed reversing planned cuts to the Pentagon defense budget in favor of pushing 1.8 million people off of food stamps and removing school lunch subsidies for 280,000 children.
Since the U.S. government does not view guaranteed food access as a task that falls under its purview, and since food is privatized in a for-profit sector that is complicated by government commodity payments, civil society organizations are left with the daunting task of ensuring that all Americans are fed. That’s a monumental undertaking.
It is especially difficult because there is no oversight ensuring that nonprofits are pursuing this task equally and in all locations, and there are no guarantees that existing civil society organizations will operate indefinitely into the future.
If we view access to food as a fundamental right, we cannot continue to use civil society as a crutch for its provision. The government must play a larger role.
Until then, I will work hard to convince my classmates that food organizations are worthy of our funding money.
Have suggestions for that $100,000? Let Jenny know by emailing her at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.