Back in the 1830s, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville singled out "associations" as a distinguishing feature of American life.
Instead of waiting for government or business to tackle pressing social problems as was standard in Europe, these groups - a forerunner of modern-day nonprofits - carved out their own niche as change agents.
More than 150 years later, journalist Todd Cohen discovered that American news outlets were still not telling the stories of nonprofits - and ended up devoting his career to the cause.
As editor and publisher of philanthropyjournal.org, Cohen is arguably the foremost authority on philanthropy and nonprofits in North Carolina. His verdict on the sector: "It is stronger, more diverse, more innovative and more at risk than it's ever been."
His prescription: a smarter approach in three crucial areas - fundraising, planning and collaboration. And several organizations across the state, spotlighted in depth on his site, are showing the way.
Cohen, a Raleigh resident, found his calling unexpectedly in the early 1990s when a Triangle pharmaceutical company made a major donation to a nearby university. Then The News & Observer's business editor, he followed a familiar formula: Philanthropic acts merit a brief squib at most. An official from the company called to thank Cohen - and also argued the gift deserved more coverage.
"That was the proverbial light bulb going off in my head," Cohen says. "That's when I realized there was an entire sector the mainstream news media usually did not cover at all."
He launched a weekly column on philanthropy 20 years ago last month. Today, his website, which evolved from a print journal he created in the 1990s, covers the philanthropic and nonprofit scene nationally, with a special focus on North Carolina. It also provides a wealth of resources for nonprofits, including job postings, industry reports and best practice articles on management, marketing and fundraising.
The site, which is free and housed within N.C. State's Institute for Nonprofits, has 13,000 subscribers and draws 40,000 viewers each month.
The sector needs all the help it can get surviving the ravages of the recession, which greatly increased demand for nonprofits' services while cutting deeply into their funding. Worse yet, the management practices of many nonprofits exacerbate their problems.
Nonprofits, for example, often use fundraising techniques that amount to treating donors like ATMs. Generic requests for money go out, and relatively small donations come back. Little loyalty is built.
In Charlotte, fundraising consultant Karla Williams is pushing an alternative. As director of the Leadership Gift School, an initiative of the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, she teaches nonprofits how to solicit major gifts from individual donors, who account for 90 percent of all charitable gifts, by getting to know them more personally and tapping into their goals and passions.
Instead of making giving a transaction, Williams shows how to build cultures of philanthropy that sustain nonprofits over the long run, Cohen says.
Because they are typically short-staffed and overburdened day to day, nonprofits also often give strategic planning short shrift - and their lack of intentionality causes them to take on too many initiatives, Cohen says.
The United Way of Central Carolinas, by contrast, teamed with UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute to identify Charlotte's most pressing needs, which emerged as education, housing and health. Now it's realigning its funding model to support them. It's a major change that won't be without pain; agencies not in those focus areas will likely see significant cuts. But the change means the United Way can attack serious social problems in more targeted fashion.
Nonprofits often work in isolation as well, with differing missions and priorities stymieing partnerships.
But in Raleigh, InterAct is taking collaboration to a new level. The agency, which supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, houses 10 agencies under one roof. Clients get one-stop access to mental health, legal, law enforcement and child-care services, among others.
Cohen reports that InterAct used to serve seven families a day - and has more than tripled that number since consolidating its services in a new building three years ago. Its partner agencies meet regularly to coordinate their work, ensuring efficient service.
"It's usually very difficult for agencies to work collaboratively, but they're doing it well," Cohen says.
At a time when needs are high and resources scarce, innovation, collaboration and accountability matter more than ever. Leading funders have come to expect it and high-impact social enterprises deliver it. Those that don't risk obsolescence - and these rising expectations will ultimately serve our communities well.
Christopher Gergen is the founding executive director of Bull City Forward, a member of the faculty of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University, and co-author of Life Entrepreneurs. Stephen Martin, a former business and education journalist, is a speechwriter at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership.