In President Biden’s recent State of the Union address, he reminded Americans that “Tonight we meet as Democrats, Republicans and Independents, but most importantly, as Americans with a duty to one another, to America, to the American people and to the Constitution, and an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” This duty to “one another, to America, to the American people and to the Constitution” is one that we, as Americans, take very seriously because, after all, the Constitution and our American values truly grant freedom and liberty for all.
In his “Unity Agenda for the Nation,” Biden highlighted four areas to tackle: the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans support and cancer, with government playing a leadership role in each. These are key issues for our country to address, but government’s role as the de facto leader in solving these challenges fails to account for the complexity of needs on the ground.
While government is an important player in addressing key issues that face our country and world, civil society – that is, individual citizens and the nonprofit and philanthropic communities – is integral in responding to problems and providing innovative ways to further the success of our country. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great Frenchman who wrote extensively about the United States, reflected on the limitations of government, writing, “The legislator is obliged to give a character of uniformity … which does not always suit the diversity of customs and district.”
This recognition that government alone is not able to solve societal concerns rings true today, particularly as we reflect on the pandemic.
Howard Husock, a senior fellow for domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, underscored this in a City Journal piece on civil society, stating:
Free association is what, among other things, distinguishes America from China, where independent churches, the Falun Gong and other groups not sanctioned by government face repression. Americans rise to the occasion of COVID-19 today because they routinely rise to less critical occasions, and they are encouraged to do so — by tradition and custom, and even by the tax code. America not only nurtures civil society but also retains what has been called our civil religion: a common set of American values that transcend denominational (and political) divides.
When government agencies were shut down or inaccessible, community needs accelerated, and civil society leaders and their teams of volunteers and staff rushed to lead efforts to care for the immediate physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our neighbors.
Thus, in Biden’s aim to solve issues like the opioid crisis, mental health needs, veterans support and cancer through government solutions, his “unity agenda” overlooks the nuanced and complex needs of individual Americans and the communities where we live. Civil society organizations, which are often local and community-based, are nimble, with “eyes and ears on the ground.” On the other hand, a Washington, D.C.-based politician may be more limited in his or her ability to understand and respond to community needs in rural Texas or urban Seattle.
Given this, we believe civil society, and philanthropy specifically, play a unique and vital role in fostering innovative approaches to:
- Fighting the opioid epidemic: As the Centers for Disease Control’s provisional data indicate, there was an increase of 28% in drug overdose deaths during the 12-month period ending in April 2021. The Department of Health and Human Services reports there has been an investment of $9 billion in grants from HHS to states, tribes and local communities to fight the crisis in FY 2016-2019. But as funding has increased, overdose deaths have also risen. While the government has responded in significant ways, philanthropy is – and will continue to be – essential in combating the epidemic as well. In this piece from Philanthropy Magazine, Caitrin Keiper highlights examples of philanthropic responses from foundations such as the Conrad Hilton Foundation, which has focused funding on preventing addiction with its Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment program, offering training for health care providers and others who work closely with young patients. Since 2013, the foundation has awarded more than $81 million to fund the work of 56 grantee partners in this initiative. In Ohio, which has led the nation in total overdoses, The Columbus Foundation has likewise rallied significant funds, awareness and impact in addressing overdose prevention through its SOAR (Safety, Outreach, Autonomy, Respect) Initiative.
- Addressing mental health: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 46% of American adults with mental illness received treatment in 2020. The 2022 State of Mental Health in America report from Mental Health America indicates more than 10% of young adults in the United States suffer from severe major depression. Issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as isolation, have caused this problem to worsen. Examples of philanthropic responses in the mental health area include initiatives from organizations like the Achelis & Bodman Foundation, which funds organizations that champion access to mental health treatment. Mindful Philanthropy is another group that provides advisory and other services to philanthropists in this area.
- Supporting veterans: In the aftermath of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, support for veterans is a major philanthropic focus. Foundations such as the Marcus Foundation and Gary Sinise Foundation offer significant funding and collaborative approaches to meeting veterans’ physical and mental health needs. Additionally, organizations like Call of Duty Endowment, Hire Heroes USA and the Institute for Military Veterans and Families are leading efforts to help veterans and their families transition to civilian employment, with the generous support of philanthropic partners.
- Eradicating cancer: As cancer continues to be a leading cause of death worldwide, the philanthropic sector has made great contributions to the overall health and well-being of Americans, including in its cancer response. Evelyn Lauder and Larry Norton, founders of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, have increased awareness of and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the fight against breast cancer. Likewise, the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas exemplifies how philanthropy has helped fuel innovative research and approaches for Anderson’s cancer programs.
The goal of uniting our country to address these needs is vital. To be truly effective, however, we believe government and civil society should leverage our strengths and complement each other by more comprehensively addressing these areas. Moreover, we should not confuse unity with uniformity of approach in solving the challenging problems of today.
Given the complexity and nuance of the challenges and opportunities our country faces today, we believe fostering diverse viewpoints through civil society to address this moment in our country’s history is vital. A monolithic approach to address the areas laid out in the president’s agenda will lead to limited success at best, and failure at worst. In order to arrive at the most effective community solutions, we must foster imagination, disruption, entrepreneurial thinking and innovative approaches, which are best cultivated through the diversity of civil society, in concert with limited governmental intervention when appropriate.