Occupy Wall Street: What are we going to do about it?

118It took a trip to New York this week and an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for my opinions on the Occupy Wall Street movement to begin to gel.

Daily Show correspondent John Oliver did a hilarious report from the front-lines of Zuccotti Park but with a very powerful message:
we may feel uncomfortable about what the demonstrators are doing and how they look, but they’re at least taking some action – ineffective as it may be.

What about the rest of us who may feel unhappy about today’s economic situation or some of the policies that got us here? What are we doing about it? In Oliver’s video, his group of so-called normal people, after complaining a little bit, went off to watch television and feed the kids. In other words, business as usual.

My purpose for being in New York was to join with several colleagues to help set up a new foundation. Ironically, we had to walk past Zuccotti Park several times and so we had a good chance to observe the whole scene. Our group is determined to have this new foundation be one that is committed from the beginning to harnessing the power of our entire portfolio for social good – not just the five percent part. No matter how much we give away in grants, we’ll need the help of financial institutions to invest our portfolio wisely and see it grow.

Vince Stehle, a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and vice president for programs at the Democracy Fund, reminds us, “America’s foundations have an enormous stake in the safe and equitable operation of the broader economy. Perhaps they should use their influence as investors to demand that financial institutions operate transparently and with high ethical principles. Foundations—society’s institutional investors in the public interest—have an unusual opportunity. They can make their demands heard on Wall Street. But unlike the protesters, they can do it in the board rooms of the big banks. They don’t have to stand out on the street in New York’s Zuccotti Park.”

Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, makes another point of reminding us how important wealthy individuals are to the revenues of nonprofit organizations.: “No matter how you slice it, philanthropy is driven by asset-based wealth; indeed, large organized philanthropy of the foundation variety is fueled by the top 1 percent of the population that holds 23.5 percent of national income.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the demonstrations a “primal scream” in a recent column. That’s not a bad description: chaotic, unfocused, goofy at times, but energized. David Ignatius, associate editor of The Washington Post wrote
that it is part of a “global spring” of discontent against elites across the world and a delayed reaction to the financial crisis. I like those descriptions better than The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger: “the park’s people have settled into a barely moving mass of down market grunge ‘occupying”’ a marijuana oasis.” At its core, people are asking some fundamental questions: what kind of society do we want the United States to be? How do we give people the freedom and incentives to grow wealth, build a strong and resilient economy, create new jobs and do it in a way that benefits the greater good?

And what are we going to do about it?

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One response to “Occupy Wall Street: What are we going to do about it?

  1. This is an interesting question, as I was thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement the other day, but moreover asking myself where the Government role’s ends and the role of the individual and non-profit’s begin. To me, we are all responsible for social justice and the common good. While the Government represents the people – how far is that reach appropriate?

    To me, a smaller Government and building a more robust non-profit and private sector is part of that answer. In my experience, when an organization gets too large, there is more room for inefficiencies to occur and a larger part of the employee’s time is spent adhering to paperwork created by management. Expense reports, time analysis forms, goals and objectives, meeting minutes, board reports, staff reports, and software training are important for staff for organizational efficiency – but how much of that time is ‘wasted’, rather than spending on direct-service projects that make a meaningful impact to that organization’s mission? When working in a small organization, these tasks may still exist, but the time spent on completing them is usually significantly reduced. Now, consider the Government. How much time do Government employees spent on projects that enhance organizational workflow, versus, tasks that have a direct impact on people? If the role of the Government was reduced, how many more people would it benefit, by putting resources to work at the ‘ground level’, empowering community and business leaders to make a direct and immediate impact with those resources diverged from the Government bureaucracy?

    I feel that central to the common good is philanthropy and the notion of reinvesting resources back to social services and programs. By giving people power over their resources, I believe that most have the desire to see those dollars leveraged to benefit the common good. Consequently, acknowledging that the Government still plays a pivotal role in building a more sustainable infrastructure, it would be wise for State and Federal officials to spend resources wisely by investing early to create jobs in the community which will outlast ‘stimulus’ dollars. By taking a more strategic approach to helping small businesses through tax incentives, rather than the financial bail-out of large corporations, we can create sustainable incentives to employ people long-term, rather than short-term projects.

    By incentivizing people to do more with their resources by opportunities to give back and reinvest in their communities is a long-term solution to help reinvigorate the economy. If we look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the notion of redistribution of wealth as a way to help the common good – my opinion is that is the one of the quickest ways to de-incentivize people and weaken the overall work ethic. America was founded by the entrepreneur and small business leaders – creating opportunity from innovation and ingenuity. By helping support these endeavors at the local level we can help reinvest in the community infrastructure, creating a more resilient workforce, ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

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