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Even as Covid-19 keeps us apart, civil society organizations continue to bring people together to tackle local challenges.

Over the last six months, the world has faced one of the most challenging public health crises of our modern era. The coronavirus pandemic has caused serious hardship for many Americans nationwide. In addition to the direct health consequences, families continue to struggle with disruptions in our education system, access to childcare, and more than 13 million people remain unemployed—with some facing the inability to pay for basic necessities like food or rent.

At the same time, we have seen compassionate people and organizations taking it upon themselves to fill the gaps and come together to contribute to Covid-19 relief efforts, engage in mutual aid, and combat social and economic problems in their neighborhoods.

Non-governmental efforts continue to be critical forces in communities all over the country. One of our most distinctive attributes, America’s strong civil society has shown resilience and a unique ability to respond quickly and effectively to today’s new and unmet needs thanks to unfailing volunteers and private philanthropy. Local nonprofits—powered by community support rather than government support—have acted like additional “first responders,” looking out for the most vulnerable, providing food and critical supplies at no cost, connecting people with job opportunities, and more. It is these individuals and the organizations they constitute—the arms and legs of a thriving civil society—that were there to assist those in need before the pandemic … they are there during the pandemic … and they will be there as the nation emerges and recovers from these difficult times.

In the midst of today's challenges, Manhattan Institute’s Tocqueville Project has continued its work to identify local leaders who empower the poor and disadvantaged, build caring relationships to support those in crisis, prepare the next generation to realize their full potential, restore and revitalize struggling neighborhoods, and much more. After receiving inspirational nominations from 37 states and 107 cities around the country, it is our honor to recognize five outstanding nonprofits and their leaders with $25,000 prizes. You can join us on Thursday, October 29th for the 2020 Civil Society Awards virtual event where we will honor five organizations for their work to assist those in need, strengthen their communities, and keep our social fabric from fraying.

The 2020 Civil Society Award recipients remind us how civil society initiatives can address vexing problems and overcome historic challenges such as providing long-term support for foster children; bringing cultural resources to disadvantaged rural areas; learning the best ways to support and care for family members living with dementia; helping children of immigrants build their confidence, expand their horizons, and achieve academic success; and, even amid a pandemic, finding new ways to assist the homebound, elderly, and immunocompromised.


Carole Klingler is a registered nurse, who lives in a small town outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In 2016, she created a faith-based nonprofit, LIFE: A Dementia Friendly Foundation, to address the family-care challenges facing those living with dementia and their family members. LIFE provides critical resources—education, training, and engaging activities—at no cost to participants that improve their quality of life and that of their caregivers. With the help of dozens of volunteers and a multitude of local businesses, health-care professionals, and community partners, LIFE helps family members care for each other and provides a much-needed network of support in a safe, stable, and familiar environment. 

Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Darryl McDaniels of the legendary 1980s hip-hop group, Run-DMC, and Emmy Award-winning casting director Sheila Jaffe created The Felix Organization in 2006 after they connected through their shared experiences as adoptees. Inspired to share their good fortune with children who had not been “taken home” as they had, McDaniels and Jaffe founded their nonprofit to provide inspiring opportunities and new experiences to enrich the lives of children growing up in the foster care system. Today, The Felix Organization has grown to include five summer camps in the Los Angeles and New York areas and offers year-round programming to allow foster care youth the opportunity to pursue their goals, develop their talents, attend cultural and sporting events, and more. With the help of more than 100 volunteers, community partnerships, and generous philanthropic support, the organization has served more than 10,000 youth, providing stability, care, and life-changing experiences for those whose lives are marked by trauma and uncertainty. 

Healy Chait, Liam Elkind, and Simone Policano founded Invisible Hands in March 2020, while New York City was struggling to combat the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In just a few months, the three 20-somethings amassed 10,000 healthy, neighborhood volunteers, and they continue to provide contactless grocery delivery to the most vulnerable, especially people at high risk for contracting a serious case of Covid-19. With a focus on mutual aid, their nonprofit has bridged the gap between generations, brought neighbors together during a challenging time, and fought the dual problems of food insecurity and social isolation that were exacerbated by the pandemic. To date, Invisible Hands’ volunteers have completed thousands of deliveries to those in need—amounting to more than $1 million in food, medicine, and other necessities. Recently, the group expanded to cities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, providing not only critical supplies, but social connectedness and a sense of community.

Ruth Ellen Jacobson is the executive director of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra and founder of its Tocando Music Project, which aims to empower children growing up in challenging social and economic conditions near El Paso, Texas, to transform their lives through classical music. Founded in 2013 in El Segundo Barrio, El Paso’s historic Hispanic district, Tocando was inspired by Venezuela’s “El Sistema,” an international youth orchestra movement. Through an immersive music education program, Tocando provides children of first- and second-generation immigrants with a strong sense of community, self-confidence, and valuable life skills such as teamwork and leadership. According to Jacobson, the goal of the program is not to “make musicians,” but to motivate students to achieve academic success and change their life trajectory.

When a group of citizens started meeting in 1989 to establish a modest library in Dixon, New Mexico, they didn't know the Embudo Valley Library & Community Center would become a vehicle for strengthening and sustaining the economic, social, educational, and cultural aspects of their village's life. An artist and one of the library’s founders, Shel Neymark, hopes to inspire other towns to view their libraries as organizations that can address a variety of needs and create transformative change. With the help of more than 60 volunteers, the library offers a multitude of community events and critical services—including the only free, public computers and internet connection available in the area—to more than 900 local residents and 8,500 people in rural New Mexico’s Rio Arriba and Taos counties. The library also provides robust children’s programming, including an early literacy program, after-school enrichment and tutoring for K–6th grade students, and a STEM program that offers students 3D printing and robotics classes. Participants in the youth STEM program have shown significant gains in technology-related skills and confidence, which highlight how opportunities for local school children have increased due to library programming and assistance from its staff.


While the coronavirus pandemic has changed many of our lives in recent months, the spontaneous and generous efforts of average citizens have proven resilient. The Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Awards celebrate the ingenuity and adaptability of nonprofits supporting their communities, and this year we are especially eager to recognize several organizations enduring the effects of the pandemic and even addressing emerging needs resulting from it.

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that the voluntary associations that constitute American civil society were a unique and essential ingredient in helping American communities thrive. Almost two centuries later, this observation remains as true as ever. Please join us on October 29th as we honor and celebrate five nonprofits and their leaders who work tirelessly to strengthen American civil society and serve the needs in their communities.

To learn more about the Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Awards Program or join the virtual 2020 awards celebration on October 29, 2020, please visit www.civilsocietyawards.com.

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