Is It Charity or Is It Community?

08/01/2013 04:13 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

We like to think that charity is a uniquely -- or at least, an especially -- American tradition. The French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, gave this notion credibility in the early 19th century when he referred to American's propensity to form voluntary associations of all kinds, including charitable. This took de Tocqueville by surprise because voluntary action by groups of citizens was not so much a part of the world he knew, especially Europe.

Consider the heyday of social movements a century ago, when many of the "charities" we know well today were founded: children's aid societies, settlement houses, workmen's educational groups and burial societies, as well as the United Ways, Boys and Girls Clubs, Urban Leagues, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts that are still with us today.

But is the American practice of "charity" what it needs to be, what it could be?

We can be taken in by the headlines of amounts raised each year. Before the economic downturn that affected everything from 2007 on, total dollar amounts donated in the U.S. tended to go up each year. But, if you think about it, almost everything went up from year to year until the "crash" of 2007. In fact, the percentage of disposable personal income that Americans contribute has been static at about 2 percent for decades. It was actually at or above 2 percent from 1997-2007, after which it dropped to, and stalled at, 1.9 percent (or 2 percent as a percent of Gross Domestic Product). Not bad, right? Well, considering that we Americans continued the tradition of forming voluntary, charitable organizations at an accelerating rate over the years, that means a static percentage of the economy spread over a dramatically increased number of organizations.

As I observed in a recent HuffPost blog, nonprofit organizations are a vital part of the fabric of community. I noted further than many organizations that we think of as "charities" are that technically but receive a very significant portion of the funds on which they operate from government and user fees, or both. It may be splitting hairs but are those charities, or are they nonprofit or civic enterprises? They function like a for-profit enterprise in many ways but they are "owned" by the community (through their citizen boards) rather than shareholders, they get more of their money from third-party payers (e.g., government, donors) than from sales, and they put any profits back into mission rather than distributing it.

Another challenge to charity in 21st century America is donor confusion and disenchantment. And why not? It is very confusing, what with the huge numbers of causes and organizations coming at us, a lack of clarity of what is government and what is charity, and our dated notions of charity.

It is no longer a time of charity "now more than ever." It is a time to redefine, reframe, rediscover charity for what it is... and that is community. De Tocqueville did not write about charity or charitable organizations per se. He wrote about voluntary associations. Maybe we have lost sight of that. Those associations were, and many of them remain, all about citizens banding together for a cause or mutual aid. It was and is an organized way for people to live together and to help one another.

Yet, we have, excuse the term, objectified charity. It is an "it" rather than an "us." It is about competition between organizations rather than a community's agenda. The very term charity (as applied to nonprofit or civic organizations), in today's context, diminishes the organizations it is intended to describe.

With continuing economic uncertainty, record profits for many corporations that are not going toward investments in charitable works (corporate giving has declined to .8 percent of pre-tax profits from a high of 2 percent in 1986), a pattern of continued cuts in public investments in human services, the arts, and other aspects of community, confusion, disenchantment and all the other factors, maybe it is time to rediscover and redefine the citizen engagement aspect of charitable work and for citizens of Portland and Peoria to take stock of what makes their communities great, or that could.

All charities are not created equal. What if considering the issues of community development -- the human aspects of community -- were a focus of community convenings and local planning, alongside planning for roads and land use? What are the elements of community -- in terms of organizations, services, etc. -- that allow us to ensure the healthy development and well-being of every member of the community? Take art, music and the humanities out of the category of amenities and recognize them as a part of how we develop and connect throughout the life span. Move health beyond medicine and medical care and make prevention and wellness the integral elements of human development they need to be.

It's not charity. It's community. And community requires engagement and intentionality.