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"Let's create community"

Working together to revive communities has never been more urgent, Sherry Magill, head of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, told the annual gathering of LISC staff in November. But in an era when the public’s sense of community responsibility and faith in local government have hit an all-time low, rallying support for our work is especially tough. The keys to reaching our common goals, Magill promises, lie in telling powerful stories about our successes, fortifying our partnerships with anchor institutions, and keeping up the good fight.

As a 25-year veteran of the foundation world, Sherry Magill knows of what she speaks. In a frank and heartfelt keynote address, the president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund discussed the changing landscape of philanthropy and traced LISC's mission of community engagement back to the values of serving a larger, public good upheld by the Puritans, the Framers of the Constitution and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, said Magill, a lot has changed in the world of philanthropy since Mrs. duPont established the foundation that bears her name and which carries on the mission—what she called her obligation—that giving be grounded in local communities and institutions. Today, the Fund boasts $280 million in assets and has an annual budget of $14 million.

LISC and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund partnered most recently to repurpose an abandoned library in Jacksonville, FL as a center for nonprofits.

Magill lamented how few Americans recognize the importance of participating generously in their communities and how little faith they have in the power of government to create good things. She also pointed out the need for local elected officials to look to public dollars, raised through taxation, to support public institutions such as schools, libraries and even pension systems, and to think instead of private money as part of an ongoing alliance in nurturing the places where we live and work.

Our best bet in the current climate, said Magill, is to reach out to funders and other supporters through compelling stories about the people LISC's work touches every day. "Givers do not fund data, no matter what they tell you,” she said. "They will make you show results, but they fund success and meaningful change in the lives of ordinary people.”

She also suggested leveraging the assets of and shoring up our relationships with anchor institutions rich in endowed capital, and helping direct those resources toward struggling communities.

Ultimately, Magill said, "the only way we humans are going to make it is to rediscover our basic interdependence, to do everything in our power to build and strengthen community rooted in local places.”

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

Excerpt from transcript of keynote address:

We began this American experiment understanding full well the centrality of community—the commonweal—in the human enterprise. As John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said in a speech he delivered in 1630:

"Now the only way. . . to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. . . We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body."

For our very security and to provide for ourselves and those who come after us, Winthrop said "let's create community." He did not say "let's create a police state, let's arm ourselves." The only way the early Puritans would make it through a harsh Massachusetts winter was to work together for the common good--not against each other, and not to advance self at the expense of others. It's a refrain we recognize in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: "We the people . . ." Our early political theory and practice tells us that we created governments to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense [and] promote the general welfare."

It's almost 400 years since the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay. Individualism came to rule, supplanting the central importance of community—so much so that many of us now live alone in homes, apartments, and condos, disconnected from those who live nearby, but oddly connected through technology to folks we don't even know living all over the planet. We are very plugged in. Yet we seem to know so little about the places in which we live, we do not believe government in any way represents our collective will, nor do we think government can do anything good. In some places, it looks like we've given up on each other, that we're hell-bent on dismantling the basic functions of local government. Continued[+]...