A Summer's Journey

07/17/2012 02:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

The summer months are often a time for rest and reflection. It is the time of the year when businesses traditionally enjoy their slowest period, and the season when families typically enjoy their annual vacations. This summer, I enjoyed the privilege of spending a month at that Cathedral of higher learning -- Oxford University, where along with thirty senior executives from around the world, I participated on the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Program. It was an exhilarating intellectual journey, and one that will shape not only my view of the world, but also how each of us in our own way are contributors towards the success of our companies, organizations, and causes.

During my time at Oxford, I was able to observe a Europe that was clearly experiencing a most traumatic period in its history. The global economic crisis appeared to have reached its zenith in Greece, with Spain following closely behind. The Greeks held their third general election in 18 months -- an election that was monitored closely across Europe. The big question confronting that beautiful Mediterranean country was -- would their citizens elect a government that could effectively deal with their debt crisis via an austerity program of almost historic proportions? The Greeks chose to do just that. They elected a three-party coalition government to assume this difficult challenge.

Spain by contrast, and no less significantly, avoided the spectacle of yet another general election, but selected, instead, to accept a bank-led bailout. By doing so, Spain and -- by extension -- the wider European community is hoping for stability to return to the economy of that country. In the case of both Greece and Spain, not only their future, but the future of the twenty-seven connected members of the European Union is at stake.

Britain, however, was enjoying a summer of almost historic euphoria. Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee, followed closely with the return of the Olympic Games for the first time since 1948, has produced a period of celebration and national pride unseen in decades. Yet underneath that sense of national pride, there remain much concern about the fragility of the U.K economy. Further, and to my great surprise, confidence in the business community appeared muted, and outright hostility and resentment towards the banking community ran across all sectors of society. This disdain was perhaps best captured in the Barclays bank scandal in which this venerable institution was found to have manipulated interest rates over a period of time to avoid the appearance of balance sheet weakness. This scandal ultimately cost the CEO his job, but more importantly, unleashed a media frenzy that spoke volumes to the hostility that the British public has towards its bankers.

In observing the Europeans this summer, it was noticeable how little attention or involvement on the big issues of the day was being played out with the active participation of the third sector or, to use the U.S. vernacular, the nonprofit community. Perhaps a symptom of culture rather than will, the nonprofit community or the citizen advocate, appears to be a phenomena that is unique to the United States.

This time last year, the White House and Congress were locked in a furious debate about our nation's debt ceiling. It was a debate that almost led to the shutdown of the federal government, but did lead to spending cuts on targeted discretionary programs. It was however noticeable the extent to which interest groups, advocates, and other independently-minded organizations, were able to not only shape the debate in Washington, but also determine the outcome. Some would argue that it was pluralism at its best.

The nonprofit community and, the role of grassroots organizations in helping to address the critical issues of our time, is a truly wonderful reflection of our nation's capacity to find ways through non-governmental vehicles to solve our most complex problems. This is something for which we should be proud. However, the ability of the nonprofit community to serve our community effectively is also based on trust. The trust between donor and organizations; the trust between the volunteers and organizations with whom they extend their services; trust in the nonprofit sectors, translates into confidence in our ability to meet the needs of our community. When that trust is violated, the volunteers and the donors, will remove their support -- and rightly so.

As I end my European journey, I do so with a renewed sense of awareness about the complexities of the world in the 21st century. This will be a century of transformative change. However, in spite of change, my faith and confidence in the capacity of good people, within great organizations whether in the public, private or nonprofit domain, to remain true to their mission for the benefit of society remains undiminished. But, for us to be successful, it is important that our leaders of the 21st century are able to absorb the complexities of our time and to transmit clarity and purpose through their response. So that they see the challenges of our time not as a threat, but as an opportunity. If they are successful, our world will indeed be a better place.