by Liz Moore
Back to the Fundamentals: The Common Good
Last week I had a conversation with our board chair about the number of changes taking place at the federal level. She said to me, “Yes, a lot is changing. But I’m also interested in what hasn’t changed.” Her remark got me thinking not only about current policy specifics, but also about longstanding fundamentals that have remained constant over time for nonprofits. This led me to the concept of the common good. It’s not a phrase we use every day, but it is profoundly relevant, especially for those of us working in the nonprofit sector. I’ve heard the common good described in many ways, including this concise explanation:
“The common good is a way of defining in a single concept the good of the community together with the good of each of its members.”
Although this denoscription takes more than one reading, I appreciate how it so closely weaves the good of the community with the good of each of its members, and vice versa. Neither stands alone, and the good of one is necessary to the good of the other.
But here’s the tricky question. When there are differences of opinion – as there always are – who gets to decide what exactly is the common good? Right now, with conflicts and dispute at the federal level and in our communities, this is a valid question.
In seeking answers, I’ve found myself turning to some of our nation’s founding documents. Last week I read the Constitution to my husband as we drove home from Bozeman. (Yes, he was as thrilled as you might imagine.) This week, it was the Declaration of Independence.
In reading these documents, it’s clear to me a single person or group doesn’t get to mandate exactly what is the common good – not even our Founding Fathers. Instead, they offer us a roadmap dotted with phrases like general welfare, equality and the unalienable rights of all – including life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. These are the mile-markers of our democracy, and it is in the context of these values that the nonprofit structure emerged. Nonprofits are critical to our country’s ability to achieve what is set out in these founding documents. Nonprofit endeavors are how we, the people, reach for these ideals. 1.5 million nonprofits across the nation, including more than 7000 in Montana, represent our highest and best wishes for ourselves and our great national community – our common good.
In order to fulfill our role, then, nonprofits accept a dual mandate. First, we turn outward: vocally and visibly fighting against threats and barriers to societal wellbeing, and advancing the general welfare through the delivery of services, advocacy and civic engagement. That has not changed. Second, we look inward: remaining nonpartisan, avoiding an agenda that serves the few at the expense of the many, maintaining the highest ethical standards, being trustworthy, and staying focused on mission. That too has not changed.
We have our work cut out for us. These mandates are not new, but recommitting to them can be a theoretical exercise, or it can be pragmatic, powerful and effective, distancing us from the distracting noise and chatter we’re experiencing on so many levels, and bringing us back to our center – the day to day work of advancing the common good, which is the distinctive and unchanging role nonprofits occupy in our democracy.