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Progressives cherish the civic sector and for good reason. Important public work gets done, including responding to human needs and helping citizens take action. By civic sector, I mean ‘for-the-public-good’ activities undertaken by groups and organizations classified as non-governmental and not-for-profit. It’s also sometimes called “The Third Sector” (in parallel standing to the private and public sectors) and the Non-Profit & Voluntary Sector.

Civic Sector

I’ve had a variety of uplifting experiences working in and with the civic sector over a span of 40+ years. Several of those experiences were career-altering and others have been life-influencing. But I’ve also experienced the sector’s underbelly.

By underbelly, I mean practices and behaviors that are rarely in public view and almost never talked about openly. The underbelly diminishes the civic sector as shining expression of a democratic society—the work that Alexis de Tocqueville glorified in his monstrously influential book, Democracy in America.

All too often (and increasingly so in recent years), I’ve come face-to-face and gone toe-to-toe with the underbelly. What does it look like? To answer, let’s focus on two subsets of the civic sector—professionalized nonprofit organizations and citizen-led organizations. Let’s start by looking at professionalized nonprofit organizations.

Because the sector survives on philanthropy, charitable donations are lingua franca. But money—ameans to serve the public good—all too often becomes an end.

When I began doing community work in the 1970s, the prevailing orientation was a love of the work combined with a strong sense of contributing to the public good. I believe that orientation is still widespread, but I know that the sector has changed enormously over the years. Today it’s an industry in the corporate sense of the word. In his biting critique, Peter Buffett called it The Charitable-Industrial Complex.

Because the sector survives on philanthropy, charitable donations are lingua franca. But money—a means to serve the public good—all too often becomes an end.

Because the sector survives on philanthropy, charitable donations are lingua franca. But money—a means to serve the public good—all too often becomes an end. What shocks me most these days is how the money-gathering business is displacing emphasis on core purposes of nonprofit work.

Not long ago I wrote a Letter to the Editor of a metropolitan newspaper. In it, I expressed a negative reaction to an article that had been published a few days earlier. Written by a nonprofit executive, the article included “tips” for nonprofit administrators about how to optimize fundraising potential. That article, I argued, should have been published in an outlet for nonprofit executives and practitioners. More relevant for public consumption would have been an article about how local nonprofits are benefitting citizens.

The money wheel spun faster a few weeks later. There was another donation-related article in the newspaper, this time a piece that ranked local nonprofit staff fundraisers across the metro area by donation dollars they had procured. They were glorified as “stars.” I was flabbergasted! Nonprofit staff members were being presented to the public the way real estate agents are ranked. What about impact on peoples’ lives?

But obsession over money isn’t the only issue that troubles me. Another matter looms large. It’s the significant decline in what Peter Dzur and others call civic or democratic professionalism. That form of professionalism happens when community-based professionals engage the public authentically by establishing and sustaining two-way, developmental relationships. Civic/democratic professionalism is different from one-way efforts—from the nonprofit to the community—such as public relations and organizational outreach.

And one type of one-way transaction is troublesome: it’s when the prevailing orientation is to extractfrom, rather than to engage with, the public. That happens when nonprofits focus too much attention on what they can get from citizens, most notably their time (volunteering) and money (donations).

A “what you can do for us” ethic can extend to how nonprofits use volunteer resources. A special area of concern is when they use volunteers as extensions of paid staff (e.g., to save money, extend organizational reach). I’ve witnessed paid staff ‘playing hardball’ with volunteers (e.g., making demands, issuing edicts).

Several years ago I was brought in as a consultant to help resolve a situation where volunteers resisted being used that way. It was immediately clear to me why they were in that position. The executive in charge (the presumed culprit) was being pressured by bosses to use volunteers as staff extensions.

Then there’s the matter of boards of directors. I’ve seen CEO’s, executive directors, and board chairs stack boards so that it’s easier to achieve a partisan agenda. I remember the time when an executive director walked around the board table looking over our shoulders as we (board members) voted on an important matter. Most members around that table were cronies of his. I wasn’t. He paid especially close attention to my ballot.

Stunts like that blur the distinction between administration and governance—domains that are functionally separate in healthy organizations. Board cabals lead to the same outcome.

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Cabals emerge when a subset of board members—personally close to the CEO, executive director, or board chair—form a group. Together they advance a preferred agenda. Uninvolved board members are in the dark until much later in deliberations, often when proposals/ decisions go up for a vote. Uninvolved members face a decision: raise questions or go along. In ‘cabalized’ nonprofits, it’s a matter of either being ‘with or against us’: too much questioning is unwelcome and too much compliance displaces collaborative governance.

Yes, I’m troubled by all of those matters. But, these days, I’m just as concerned about what’s happening in the other subset of the sector, namely, citizen-led groups.

Much to my astonishment, I’ve found that a cherished aspect of citizen-led community work—citizens stepping up to lead—has a dark side. How so? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve experienced person-identified and/or -dependentcitizen-led organizations.

That happens when a citizen retains leadership over an extended time and won’t yield leadership to others. Using authority (of position) and interpersonal influence, one person drives and bounds the organizational agenda, including setting priorities, choosing activities, and deciding which topics will (and won’t) be discussed. Those outcomes aren’t always accomplished by authoritative fiat, either. It’s not unusual to find boards of directors stacked with friends and others who comply. And heaven forbid should anybody offer alternatives. Responses are likely to be: “Have you run that by X? “What would X say?” “X will never go along with that!”

The situation almost always gets worse when founders lead organizations for an extended period of time. Founders Disease, as I call it, is real. (I’ve struggled with it personally.) Those with the disease figure out ways to retain power as they simultaneously disable leadership succession. Clever about it, more than once I’ve seen a founder step away, put a crony in place, and then continue to ‘call the shots’ from the sidelines.

To publicize that another pathway exists, a few years ago my spouse and I wrote a newspaper op-ed about a local organization we had joined. That organization had been founded fifty years earlier by leaders who were free of Founder’s Disease. How so? They crafted bylaws that mandated very short-term, rotating leadership. How is the organization doing? It’s as vibrant as ever.

There’s another major issue I’ve observed in the realm of citizen-led organizations. Citizens don’t always bring to community work what professionally-employed staff members bring to the workplace. Self-management is the norm in the workplace, and penalties will be paid if behaviors stray. In community work, though, boundary conditions are light or non-existent. Typically, you work with (what I call) the person unvarnished, that is, the way he or she is at home, in relationships, etc., au naturel.

One example is what I call “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Folks cordial and easy to work with one day become hellcats a few days later (or vice versa). While you never know “which person will show up,” there’s one thing you know for sure: at some point you’ll be a target of angst. I’ve also observed headshaking outbursts—of citizens saying things, accusing others of actions, etc.—that seem to come from emotions deep inside. Those behaviors include citizens engaging in bullying behaviors. Not long ago a citizen bullied other citizens at a public meeting. The culprit is known to be a bully and, by bullying, he often gets his way. He did that night.

Eccentricities like those sometimes result when citizens experience life stress. For example, a community colleague took me aside recently (unsolicited) to say “something awful” (unspecified) had happened to a mutual colleague—the same colleague who had acted out a few days earlier.

What I’ve just described are manifestations of the human condition—behaviors that certainly aren’t unique to civic work. Behaviors become especially problematic in civic work when expressed as incivility.

Some citizens know how to engage responsibly with fellow citizens and others do not. But how things shake out in any situation isn’t a function of individual differences alone. My worst civic experiences have been in communities with a history (and culture) of civic intransigence, conflict, and what I call “jungle behavior” (that is, survival of the fittest). Under those circumstances, fellow citizens get dismissed and disregarded. Sometimes they’re cast as “the enemy.” Civility and those who value it get swept aside, too, so much so that it’s not unusual to witness citizens seeking shelter. “I just don’t like the conflict,” is how one person expressed it recently.

I’m still shocked when rough-and-tumble citizen-to-citizen attitudes play out in public and behind closed doors. It’s a hop-skip-and-jump to trivializing the value of public input/participation. When that happens, democratic engagement flies out the window.

I’d love to say that what I’ve written here covers the full range of experiences I’ve had with the civic sector’s underbelly. It doesn’t. I’d love to write that I’ve never engaged in any of the behaviors personally. I can’t. And I’d love to say that Progressives with whom I’ve worked are anathema to these practices. They aren’t.

For me the bottom line is clear. For all the good the civic sector does, the underbelly undermines the sector’s value. And in today’s tumultuous politics, there is every reason to believe that the underbelly will continue to exist, if not expand. Reconstruction is required.

A basic step is to speak up when coming face-to-face with the underbelly. ‘Calling out’ is one of the best ways to abort a practice and detour its continuance. A related step is leading by example. Put in place (and/or endorse) approaches and processes that promote democracy.


My guess is that de Tocqueville would expect no less. If alive today, he might be writing a sequel, “Democratizing America.”

Frank Fear