As NPQ notes the passing of 2011 and the beginnings of 2012, we want to note some trends that we think will span the two years and have profound implications for civil society, at least in the near future. These trends are overarching, and not simply about nonprofits; they have to do with the relationship between people/communities and institutions such as government and corporations, and even nonprofits. They have to do with civil society—and citizen (understood in its broadest sense) action.
Time Magazine last year declared “the protestor” person of the year, and this resonates. People all over the world have taken to the streets—and also to their computers—to challenge political, economic, and social structures that are less than accountable and at times deadly to spirit as well as body. And yet there is every likelihood that only the surface of this trend has been scratched, and this wave of citizen action may yet take on any number of additional diverse but interconnected issues.
Below we will lay out some of the more powerful trends we are seeing as we end 2011, but we acknowledge that we have missed any number of important threads of the fabric. We know that our observations are colored by where we sit, so we ask you to weigh in, too, on trends you think we have missed—or elaborate or correct us on those that we have sketched out below. We are very interested in your predictions.
1. Growing income inequity—number of those in poverty in U.S. highest ever
When the new U.S. Census figures were published in mid-September, they showed what many of us already knew too well. The headline was that the number of people (more than 46 million) living in poverty in the United States was the highest ever recorded in the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been tracking the statistics.
And, not surprisingly, that poverty is not the equal opportunity kind, beingfar higher for blacks, at 27.4 percent, and for Hispanics, at 26.6 percent, than for the overall population, which is at 15.1 percent—and especially compared to whites, whose rate of poverty is now at 9.9 percent.
Meanwhile, according to a Pew study, the wealth gap between younger and older Americans is wider than it has ever been. In fact, using census data, the study shows that the typical household, which is headed by someone 65 or older, has a median net worth of $170,494—47 times the median net worth ($3,662) of a household headed by someone under 35. This gap is double what it was even five years ago, and is believed to be the highest it has ever been, even pre-dating record keeping on the topic.
These figures no doubt helped sow the seeds for OWS.
2. Growing anger about inequity: Occupy Wall Street 99% declare themselves present
Some thought NPQ was a little obsessive in its coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and we were covering it closely, but there were aspects that deserved scrutiny by anyone working to address social issues:
- It involved young people in positions of leadership in the social issue of the decade;
- It forced the issue of income inequality—the too-close-for-comfort relationship between big money and government—into the public discourse, getting us beyond the knee-jerk “class warfare” charge that has been shutting this important dialogue down for years;
- It very rapidly went viral on an international basis;
- It managed to steer clear of overly narrowing its agenda with a platform of specific demands, and stuck to raising the issue with specific examples, thus avoiding excluding potential supporters; and
- It steered clear of institutional involvements that would have made the effort less collectively held.
All of these aspects are important to understand and watch as the movement evolves. See the articles below:
Related to OWS and a general frustration with financial institutions was Bank Transfer Day, a remarkable and successful, loosely organized grassroots organizing effort aimed at getting people to shift their savings from big banks to credit unions. It is estimated that approximately 690,000 customers shifted more than $4.5 billion in a month’s time.
Does this indicate a wider willingness to consider and put energy and investment into alternatives to our current economic relationships with large institutions? Will this be the kind of ground in which an interest in “social enterprise” or business for the common good actually takes root?
3. Untethered formations of Internet activists align themselves here and there with causes
Meanwhile, loose formations of Internet activists have made themselves useful to movements, albeit in a way that completely lacks transparency. In Boston, after a set of arrests of OWS protestors, Anonymous hacked into the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, downloading and publishing the user names and passwords of 1000 officers. Having this kind of “masked man” presence working for us may feel comforting if it supports something we support too, but the capacity is without a discernible form for accountability.
4. But where is the U.S. government in secret communications technology?
And then there is the question of U.S. intelligence involvement in developing systems for freedom-fighting activists in other countries to link with one another anonymously. Fox in the chicken house, anyone? Anyone care to illuminate? Any guesses as to how this might end?
5. The changing landscape of globalism
Those freedom fighters in other countries, connected to each other through social media, have been the international dimension of the “year of the protester” and the inspiration for some of the Occupy movements in the United States. Citizens rose up against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which demonstrated willingness to create a sea of blood in order to keep the dictator in power; protesters toppled the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt; a citizens movement provoked by Vladimir Putin’s vote-rigging in Russia has taken to the streets of Moscow; and nonprofits have tried to speak out for citizens of the Stalinist, almost medieval North Korea, in the wake of the death of Kim Jong-il. With great courage, nonprofits in these nations have stood up in support of human rights, reflecting the core mission of the nonprofit sector—the third sector—wherever it functions in the world.
6. Billionaire philanthropy: private money in public systems—does it erode democracy further?
In 2011, most lauded the billionaires philanthropy pledge promoted by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others. Taken at face value, generosity always sounds good. But are there potential downsides? When billionaire philanthropy begins to dominate public systems, or when public systems hew their strategies to please potential or actual donors, are we trading the democratic process for the individual philanthropic largesse of the super-wealthy?
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7. Even among nonprofits, the rich seem to be getting richer
Does the division between the 1 percent and the 99 percent have a comparative dimension in the nonprofit sector? It seems like there has been a nonprofit reflection, as the news showed some larger, more connected nonprofits cleaning up in both public and private funding, while the bulk of the sector suffered through the continuing reverberations of the recession.
8. The economy continues to be unpredictable in most ways—state and local budgets often increasingly stretched paper thin
Our national economy this year has continued to be very unstable—vulnerable to domestic gridlock, a dominance of corporate interests, and instability elsewhere in the world. The most predictable trend in the economy is perhaps the widening gap between people with wealth and people without. Problems at the federal budget level and on Main Street in terms of employment and housing are squeezing state and local budgets, so this year has been one of stories about the very real affects of budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels. In Hawaii, a city council had to decide between a new fire engine and hospice services. Kansas has discontinued a program that helps poor families with funeral expenses, resulting in increasing numbers of corpses being abandoned in coroner’s offices. A town in the suburbs of Detroit took out many of its streetlights because it could not pay the light bill, causing safety concerns for residents, many of whom depend on public transportation to get to and from work.
But the budget balancing is not just about cuts, it is also about generating new revenue, and so local initiatives to tax and charge fees to nonprofits appear to have increased significantly.
The picture for state budgets is, of course, different from state to state, as is the employment picture, but our general sense is that times will continue to be difficult for many state budgets, as leaders recoil from levying additional taxes even in the face of a drop in federal funds.
And this will continue to disproportionately affect the bottom half of the 99 percent, perhaps causing yet more concern about that wealth gap that dominated public debate this past year.
9. Problems in relationships between people and institutions also surface in nonprofits
Many nonprofits are as guilty as any other institutions of losing the connection to their constituencies. This year we surfaced one story after another of situations in which stakeholders of nonprofits decided, “Hell no—we won’t go!” when a decision was made without consultation. Below is a wrap-up article of some of those newswires, which include stories of rebellion among members, donors, staff, and beneficiaries. Here is the issue as we see it: Your stakeholders are the foundation of your legitimacy and power. If you don’t know what they want you to do, maybe it’s time you found out before they take away your gavel!
10. Journalists in the fault and under siege
Again, this trend did not start in 2011, nor will it end in 2012. But we must note the changes to journalism—and especially investigative journalism—over the past year, as it continued to evolve from its traditional primary base in commercial newspapers and other media outlets to a more diverse one. As we all know, a healthy fourth estate that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted is essential to a democracy. Unfortunately, many traditional newsrooms, struggling with business models that do not meet the profit goals of owners, have divested themselves of reporters and investigative journalists because they are expensive; their work, if good, takes time, and then may or may not bear fruit.
So where are journalists to go? Many have been experimenting with nonprofit models over the last few years. Some of these are groupings of journalists who do investigative pieces either in collaboration with media outlets or to be sold to them. Others are experimenting with ideas having to do with the use of ordinary citizens as observer-reporters.
But even as some journalism sites falter, journalists do not—risking arrest and even death to cover the important stories. The number of journalists who were imprisoned on an international level at the end of this year was up by 20 percent over last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And the same organization, along with a number of others, protested the fairly widespread practice of excluding or arresting journalists attempting to cover Occupy Wall Street actions across the country.
As journalism sites increasingly take nonprofit form, it behooves us to more actively recognize and protect journalism’s critical role in a healthy society.
This is the essence of the trendspotting cited in these NPQ newswires. We all not only have a role to play in reviving and maintaining American journalism but also in ensuring that journalism pays acurate attention to the dynamics affecting our communities and civil society. Whether citizen protests against the wealth inequities in society or consumer or constituency protests against the misdirection of the nonprofits they patronize, these are not specifically nonprofit trends. Rather, they are societal trends, having to do with the mix of donors, investors, and organizations that are trying to affect social conditions for the better. The world changed under our feet in 2011—with trends that are hardly likely to end in 2012.