The existence of the “civil society” or “third sector” provides a place where individuals with similar interests can come together to advocate for changes in society that meet their goals. This is a powerful, critical role of the sector.
The founders of the United States were brilliant political theorists; they knew that the ultimate power in the nation needed to reside in the individual citizen. In a political structure set-up with “majority rule,” however, there was – from the beginning of the nation – a serious concern about what happened to citizens who found themselves in the minority or who held opinions that did not enjoy wide support. What was to protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority”?
Fortunately, the decision to grant government specific roles – but to retain in the population all power that was not freely granted to the government – created this wide-open social space that we call the third (or nonprofit) sector. Much of this independent “space” is not inhabited by organizations or by groups of people. Individuals just go about their daily lives.
Other parts of this non-governmental space are inhabited by unincorporated groups of individuals who informally work together to improve their community – a local annual beach clean-up crew or the golf league, for example. Once there is a transfer of money involved (dues, donations, etc.), a group usually creates one of the more than a million “nonprofit” organizations that exist in the United States. Portions of these nonprofits focus on charitable goals and become nonprofit charities.
The key element of this role of philanthropy is that it provides the vehicle for social change and the place where minority voices can come together to be heard by, and protected from, the larger majority society. As such, the sector is a place where new ideas are generated, and individuals with minority status are protected – and even gain power. Read an overview of how the nonprofit sector functions as an alternative power source for women and an overview of the role of civil society and advocacy on Learning to Give.
Through activism in the nonprofit sector, the following causes were (and in some cases, continue to be) addressed:
This is a very small sampling of advocacy areas in this sector. Because there is a third sector, women, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minority groups – any subset of the population that finds itself in the minority on any issue – have a vehicle of self-protection and political power. They can organize into a group and together move forward a public policy agenda. In Michigan, there are hundreds of these types of nonprofits. Each is important because of the voice and empowerment they provide.
- Civil rights for enslaved people (and equal rights for people of color)
- Women’s political and human rights
- Immigrant rights and opportunities
- Health services for AIDS victims
- Integration into society of people with handicapping conditions
- Financial support and new treatments for those afflicted with a myriad of health issues
- Protection for common environmental resources
- Provision of pre-school education
Video: Watch leaders discuss philanthropic initiatives geared toward social change.
Repressive governments in other parts of the world often severely restrict the ability of their citizens to independently organize, to privately improve the community, or to speak out on behalf of causes or minority interests. In the United States, we protect this speech and our ability to organize and petition government – and we offer a tax deduction to organizations that engage in this public policy action!
Important to the Michigan story is the role that the nonprofits and foundations have taken in advocating for the philanthropic sector itself. Two of the infrastructure organizations regularly and actively engage in public policy debate – The Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) and the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). The Council of Michigan Foundations advocates for organized grantmaking philanthropy – and giving in general. The Michigan Nonprofit Association advocates for formal nonprofit organizations and volunteering. Find out more about CMF’s and MNA’s role in public policy in Chapter 3: Public Policy Outside of Partisan Politics.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the role of CMF and MNA in engaging public policy.
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The philanthropic sector provides a place for minority opinions to be heard and for voices to be organized to address the greater society on issues of concern. A novel component of the Michigan experience is the added dimension of the nonprofit sector, which advocates for interests in support of its own role and advances the work of charities and foundations.