I still feel inspired by last weekend’s gathering of 270 people who are committed to a better democracy. “No Better Time” was an open meeting, and not everyone knew about it or was able to come. But those who attended were talented and committed and they had incredible collective assets. They included distinguished scholars, leaders of strong nonprofits, experienced civil servants, clever young technologists, and passionate advocates. They met at a time of exciting opportunities, with the new White House Office of Public Engagement, local communities that are trying innovations such as “participatory budgeting,” and the Council of Europe and the World Bank committing to civic engagement.
And yet many of my private conversations were about nonprofits in severe financial stress, even considering the possibility of closing. Both of the convening organizations–the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative–have tight budgets and unstable funding, although they have much potential to flourish. The death of organizations is by no means just a theoretical possibility. For instance, I used to work a lot with the Council for Excellence in Government, a major nonprofit whose size and stability was symbolized, for me, by its large suite of offices on K Street in Washington. CEG is gone. So are the JEHT Foundation and the Beldon Fund, two sources of money for my work over the years. A much bigger period of extinction is about to begin.
Meanwhile, the commitment of major institutions to our cause is both promising and perilous. I have no doubt that the people involved in “civic engagement” in the White House and the World Bank have good intentions and talent. I do have doubts about whether they will be successful, because they face many obstacles. If they fail, phrases like “civic engagement” could be set back for decades. And we are not in the strongest position right now to help them succeed.