Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Birmingham is a great place to live, but it’s not a great city — yet.”
If I had to guess, I would venture to say that it was somewhere around 1985 when I first uttered that thought aloud. It’s been roughly 30 years, in any case, which is long enough for me to have repeated it, verbally and in print, somewhere along the lines of — again, guessing — a thousand or so times. It’s long enough, as well, to have come to harbor a simmering frustration with the perennial ephemerality of the “yetness” of it.
But we continue to strive, and that is what counts. At least I hope so, both civically and personally. If the Great Scorer is grading us on the quantity of our progress toward perfection, rather than the quality of our efforts in that direction, I for one am up the creek without a paddle.
Regardless, I continue to trust that Birmingham will — or at least can — find its way across the line between being and becoming. After all of these years, and all of the frustration of seeing the city I love continue to fall short of greatness — and worse still, for the same reasons, the pattern of our history repeating itself — I still believe that we can transcend the burdens of our heritage, our unfortunate tendency to miss transformational opportunities, and our hidebound resistance to systemic change.
For decades, one area in which this civic dynamic was most readily apparent was Birmingham’s approach to what we now call the nonprofit sector. Dating back to the 1920s, and the formation of the local Community Chest — the forerunner of today’s United Way of Central Alabama — Birmingham was nationally known as one of America’s most charitable communities.
One reason for that, of course, was that there was such a great need for charity in Birmingham. Then as now, ours was a city hobbled by economic injustice — the very thing, in fact, that led to the infamous 1937 article in Harper’s magazine that termed us a “city of perpetual promise.” In it, writer George Leighton observed “the contrast between the living conditions of the rich and poor, the indifference of local leaders to social problems…and the divisive tactics used by political leaders who clung to power by exploiting racial cleavages.”
Ouch. And all the more so for the extent to which those words still pack the sting of currency — and to which the demand continues to exceed the supply when it comes to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and ministering to those to whom the old preachers used to refer as “the sick and shut-in.” Even so, it has always been to Birmingham’s credit that we have been so exemplary in our willingness to do these things.
The problem is, holding the fort against these things requires a fantastic level of vigilance and hard work and self-critical reflection. It takes a lot of civic energy — which, I would argue, might be the prime factor in Birmingham’s existential struggle to define itself in positive terms. It’s why we have never developed a collective self-image with which most citizens can — or would want to — identify readily, let alone project to the world at large.
It’s why Birmingham has been good at charity, but not at philanthropy.
Charity is tactical, mostly reactive in nature, a benevolent response to glaring human need. Charity can provide aid and succor to the most needy among us, but it cannot create an atmosphere in which those most in need of encouragement, assistance and opportunity receive those things as a matter of course. Charity cannot do that. Philanthropy can.
Philanthropy is strategic, forward-looking, done with one eye on the present and the other on posterity. It changes the way a community views itself, as well as the way that others view it. Targeted and concentrated giving, aimed at promoting economic justice and advances in human relations, philanthropy has transformed other communities and propelled them past Birmingham in the competition for economic growth and expansion, not to mention national prestige. Birmingham has always been late to the game, snared in its own internal strifes and tensions and grudges and divisions.
But that is changing, and has been for some time. Certainly, I’ve never known Birmingham to feel this good about itself. That’s a good thing, insofar as that good feeling is based more on substance than style. The jury remains out on whether the citizens of Birmingham can be united around a shared vision of prosperity that is built on local ideas, services, products, networks, opportunities — and that touches all corners of the community — but the signs of progress are there.
I would submit that the primary credit for that progress — and for the hope of continued progressive change in Birmingham — goes to our nonprofit sector. To an extent of which most of us are unaware, or at least forget to remember to appreciate, Birmingham is changing because local nonprofits are changing the way they think about and encourage philanthropy.
This is a broadly general statement, but I think it fair to say that Birmingham’s nonprofits, and their prominent donors, are thinking bigger than they ever have — and thinking about Birmingham, in the communal sense, more than they ever have. They have been instrumental in generating our current sense of momentum and possibility, and must be so in sustaining and expanding on that atmosphere through the foreseeable future and beyond. The next decade is going to make or break Birmingham, and the ways and means by which Birmingham supports the work of its nonprofit organizations — the way we “do” philanthropy as a community — will weigh prominently in determining that future.
In this, as with Birmingham in general, I am hopeful, if not quite optimistic — yet. As that relates to the nonprofit sector, my hope is founded largely on the level and frequency of collaboration I see them encouraging and participating in. Citizens and community, public-private partnerships, individual donors and donor groups, and direct alliances between nonprofits — all of these are becoming not the exception, but the predominant model in Birmingham’s approach to philanthropy.
In Birmingham, or anywhere else in the world, economic justice must be built from the ground up. For a growing number of our local nonprofits, this understanding is inseparable from the work they do. They are listening to citizens, helping to identify common goals that cross lines of race, class, economics, place of residence and other superficial lines of division. They are on the front lines of trying to make not just a better Birmingham, but to make Birmingham the best it can be.