February 18, 2011; Source: Washington Post | This is not a shaggy dog story. The Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association in Annandale, Va. elected a dog as its president. Ms. Beatha Lee had been nominated for the post as a relatively new resident in the neighborhood, interested in the outdoors, and with "experience in Maine overseeing an estate of 26 acres." Beatha was elected at the annual meeting, though oddly it appears no one looked around the room for Beatha or asked, “Will Beatha please stand up and say a few words?”

Rather, after the election, the residents ate ice cream, watched a karate demonstration, then decamped. Apparently, it was some weeks before they learned of Beatha's canine DNA when a news story in the association's newsletter about Beatha showed the cute little Wheaten Terrier promising to "govern with an even paw."

Why did Beatha run (perhaps against her own wishes or not even knowing them) for office? She was the pet of the former president who had termed out after three consecutive stints as association president. He had been begging neighbors to take the "often-thankless" position, but no one was interested. Younger, newer families begged off because of the challenge of long commutes and kids. Older residents said they were "burned out after losing a bruising zoning battle against a Montessori school in their neighborhood."

It may seem silly, and to some Hillbrook-Tall Oaks residents, embarrassing, but it does have a lesson for the nonprofit sector's – and the government's – focus on promoting volunteerism. Have you noticed that the volunteerism that is so frequently lauded in most of the press from the Corporation of National and Community Service – nothing bad about it – is about service-oriented volunteerism? We often forget that the first and foremost function of nonprofit and voluntary organizations in the U.S., as observed by deTocqueville, is their roles as civic associations, quite important building blocks in the edifice of American democracy.

Today, we still have nonprofits and unincorporated groups focused on voting rights, community organizing, free speech, civil rights, and other civic issues that aren't service functions, but democracy functions. Electing Beatha in Annandale may be an extreme example, but after snickering about those silly people, let's ask ourselves if we're putting the right kind of accent mark on the role of nonprofits (and volunteers) in democracy as opposed to their ability to deliver lower cost social services.—Rick Cohen