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Four major foundations are joining arms for a $40M project, “Reimagining the Civic Commons”. There is good news and bad news.

Last week Philanthropy Journal published a hopeful article about civil society. Bridget Marquis begins by noting the troubling state of affairs in today’s society—themes familiar to Philanthropy Daily readers—and correctly points out that civic association and public spaces are necessary for ebbing the flow of loneliness and unhappiness, and building up a healthier society.

Marquis is involved with Reimagining the Civic Commons, a major $40 million initiative in five cities funded by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation. The goal of the project is to demonstrate “the power of the civic commons to produce increased and more equitably shared prosperity.” There is good and bad news here. Marquis and, presumably, those involved with the project, rightly understand the importance of a healthy associational life, and they see that public spaces are essential for this. As Marquis writes,

“If you believe that public space is the place where our paths cross with people of all backgrounds, where a shared sense of identity is created, social capital is multiplied, trust is cultivated and our empathy for others is bolstered, we invite you to join us…”

This is happy news, and I for one am happy to join them in that effort. Four major foundations, in five major cities (including my own), investing serious capital in a seriously important undertaking: building trust, building shared identities, building community.

I'm with them so far, but the troubling part comes when we finish that previous quotation: “we invite you to join us in building the rationale for further investment in this critical infrastructure for our communities” (emphasis added). This is unfortunate. Marquis rightly points out, in the beginning of the article, that

“unlike philanthropic investments in education and health, investments in our shared civic assets are rarely measured in ways that demonstrate their true impact. After a new park or library is built, it may be required to share data on the increase in visitors but not much else. No one asks: How are the users of this space benefiting? What benefits are surrounding neighborhoods reaping? And what impact did this investment have on our larger societal goals?”

That is right. Funders want data on impact, and the data we typically provide is irrelevant. We are asking the wrong questions. So, what is Marquis’ response to this crisis? Address the “evidence gap.” Rather than lament, oppose, and contest the growing infatuation with metrics, the Civic Commons project seeks to build “a new rationale,” a new measurement system to demonstrate the value of public spaces and assess their contributions to communities.

This is too bad. With this endeavor, the tendrils of strategic philanthropy are penetrating even our beloved civil society. At long last, my Tuesday evening at the park with my kids is reducible to check marks on “user count” survey—and bonus points if I’m there with friends richer or poorer than me! That counts for socioeconomic diversity.

I’m troubled and bothered by this response to what are indeed serious problems: rapidly thinning civil society, an underinvestment in the spaces and institutions that strengthen civil society, and a near-universal infatuation with metrics. What, then, might be a better response to these issues?

Philanthropy Daily is in the midst of publishing a series of articles on storytelling. The gist of the series is that good fundraising depends upon good storytelling. Marquis and her colleagues were right to realize that the metrics produced by parks and libraries don’t inspire donors and don’t survive budget cuts. But rather than turning to new metrics they might have turned to good stories.

We doom ourselves in manifold ways by wedding ourselves to “metrics.” The way to save parks and libraries is to help potential donors to see the problem—our well-documented collapse of civil society—and then make a compelling case for the value of parks and libraries. Instead of counting the number of people in a park, tell a story about the central role of civic spaces in a thriving community. Tell a story about the way they used to, and will once again, foster healthy civil society.

If you worry that stories can be spun, can be dishonest, can manipulate, then you have too much faith in the honesty of the data cruncher. Yes, stories can be spun, but so too can data. The key difference is that data is easily shrouded in so much hullabaloo that it alienates your average reader—or average donor. Most of us can see through dishonest stories. Not all of us can discern dishonest data.

I am glad to see these leading funders investing in this important opportunity. I hope it generates more interest, and I hope that it is successful. But I worry about those community spaces that don’t pass the test, those cities whose metrics don’t “measure up.” How quickly do they expect a park in a difficult neighborhood to “yield good results?” How soon do they expect citizens to begin “expressing trust in others”? These are long-term goals for the reinvigoration of civil society. They are important goals. But like the love of husband and wife, the love of a man for his community is not measurable on a spreadsheet.

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