Rethinking our Approach to Community Solutions

by Thomas Barr

On a slightly chilly yet sunny day in November in Arizona, crowds descended upon a local art festival, gazing at the unique vendors, their mouths watering at the smell of kettle corn cooking in the distance. A man in his 50s sat with his dog asking for spare change. My wife walked over to hand the man a few dollars and pet the pup. “His name’s Kansas City,” he said and thankfully accepted the money. “That’s where he was born!” We spoke with him for a few seconds until a security guard came over to tell him he couldn’t stay there any longer. We went our separate ways.

How do we begin to change the broken systems that deeply impact our communities? Do we simply donate when we see a problem or crisis happening? It’s hard to argue against it, as charitable giving often has a direct, tangible impact that fills our hearts with pride. We live within a system that leaves many heavily reliant on charity, so how do we disrupt the broken systems that perpetuate these problems in our communities? How do we have conversations that question the necessity of charity and philanthropic giving in today’s society? As much as the man with Kansas City was grateful for the few dollars my wife gave him, doesn’t he deserve real change? Don’t we all?

Community organizations wrestle with these questions every day, as philanthropic giving and donations are the lifeblood for many nonprofit organizations that continue to do good work. For how could we serve the community without dollars coming in? How can business be done without profits being made?

It’s time to have more holistic, substantial conversations with our community partners and corporate donors on what it takes to create real, lasting change. Local nonprofit and for-profit businesses must come together to identify broken systems in society. Don’t get me wrong — nonprofits need the community to support their work. And generous donations of donors should never be overlooked or minimized in any way. But a cross-sector strategy is needed now more than ever to build stronger systems that don’t maintain the very problems that many nonprofits serve. We need to identify what’s broken and create smart partnerships that solve problems together.

Conventional thinking often places nonprofit organizations at the end of the line, rather than at the beginning. When nonprofits ask for money to fulfill their mission, we give. When they need volunteers, without hesitation we sign up our staff for a day of service. These actions are generous, meaningful and very important. But even more, what is needed is for nonprofit and for-profit businesses alike to build lasting, long-term partnerships to create solutions to society’s greatest problems. We need to question ourselves and look critically at the very DNA that makes up our organizations and companies. Are our companies actively working to solve problems? Or could we actually be contributing to maintaining them?

For-profit businesses can and should be built to solve problems and nonprofits should be part of that solution. We need to continue to build bridges, find common ground, and have the necessary conversations about what it will take to create the change we all need. 

Thomas Barr is the executive director at Local First Arizona, the largest coalition of locally owned businesses in North America.

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