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This is a space where Foundation staff share their thoughts and musings on giving and community:

Better Together

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 9/17/2013

The following is an excerpt from my speech at our 2013 Annual meeting. Read the full text.

Community foundations will be 100 years old in 2014. Philanthropy itself—in the form we know it today, is not much older. Over all that time much has been written about what works and what doesn’t, about who screwed up, and who did it right.

But at the Community Foundation, for our work, in the end, in this place, our real impact is in a deep grounding in people, a connection to humankind, and in meaning.

Because however you do your work, whatever your model, without people, none of it matters. In the end, for our work, it’s always better together.

Data from the Pew Center shows us that trust for government institutions—Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court—is at all-time lows. Trust in business is low. Participation in churches is lower than ever. Confidence in the news-media is low. 

If you read much about social capital, you know the story: at a national level, we don’t trust as much as we did in the past, and we just aren’t as connected. We don’t have dinner with our neighbors, we don’t go to town meeting, we don’t vote, we commute too much and have little time for volunteering.  Okay, you say, but in Vermont we’re different. Well…yes, we’re above average, but even here, the numbers aren’t what they once were.

More importantly, that literature will tell you that American civic engagement peaked in the generation that came out of World War II—my parents’ generation. And each decadal group after that has been less involved—giving less, volunteering less, voting less, etc. Not a pretty picture.

But we also see that there’s a rebirth of commitment among the people coming of age now—the Millenials. We see people in their twenties and younger starting seriously to look for re-engagement—volunteering at greater numbers. We see young people, middle-aged, and old still want that connection and that meaning. And that’s what philanthropy is at its best. Connection. Meaning. 

Better Together.

So where do we turn?  Where do we find the people and institutions to trust? How do we rebuild the sense of community that allows us to thrive?

I’ll start here. Without too much boosterism, we haven’t lost all of that in Vermont. The reality of Vermont life is that most of us wouldn’t trade it for most anywhere we’ve ever lived.  There’s nowhere I’ve lived where commitment to each other is stronger. 

Think about the reaction we all saw after Irene. At the end of August, I attended the 2nd Anniversary event for Irene in Rochester. And the FEMA people—two years after the event—are still talking about the unbelievable reaction of Vermonters after the storm. They’re telling folks from across the country to talk to us, and learn from us. “Learn from Vermont,” they say. “They did it right.” 

We still in this state have that grounding in people, that connection, that humanity.

When the McClure Foundation started targeting their work toward non-traditional students seeking success in post-secondary education, they didn’t do it alone. They have partnered with other funders; they have sat with and listened to educators as they explain their needs. They have talked with students about what works. They have done their work in partnership, with a deep and abiding belief in community and in people.

Better Together.

When our award winner Louise Sjobeck made her commitment to the Chandler Theater, it was born of a belief in community and a knowledge of the people in that community.

People. Love of Humanity. Meaning.

So where do we start? 

Together.

Our work at the Community Foundation is quite simply that. The root of the word philanthropy is love of humankind. One of the earliest writers about philanthropy—the founder of Johns Hopkins University—said, “Charity is for the poor, philanthropy is for humankind.”

That’s our work. We are inspired every day by the donors, the community leaders, the dogged nonprofit staffers. We believe in community. We believe in people. We believe things can be better.

We believe that we are all better together.

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