This year, the United States marks the 25th anniversary of celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life with a “national day of service.” In 1994, Congress designated the third Monday in January as the only federal holiday observed as a time for Americans to volunteer and improve their communities—a “day on, not a day off.” One of the great civic leaders of the 20th century, King’s legacy inspires hundreds of thousands of people each year to come together to strengthen our communities, address social problems, and more.
In many ways, Dr. King was the most powerful force for social change America has ever seen. At the same time, he worked within a great American tradition: a robust civil society. Independent, non-governmental institutions, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, served as his vehicles to drive change. It’s a tradition which, on a day of service that commemorates King, continues to thrive—but this tradition relies on the efforts of individuals and communities across the country.
Throughout our nation’s history, civic leaders have been critically important to promoting progress in our society and fostering opportunities for all Americans, especially when they identify local needs and take it upon themselves to develop a solution. As far back as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed how a strong civil society is critical to a flourishing U.S. democracy:
“Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations… they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones… in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate.”
This combination of the freedom to form associations for a common purpose, and the ability to raise the private funds to do so, has given us many valuable organizations from the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts, and thousands of other organizations, small and large, committed to improving their communities.
At a time when trust in so many of our institutions has declined, there are still many local organizations that do great work and inspire community support. In cities across the country, these groups tackle social problems, offering a hand up to people in need, with the help of volunteers and philanthropy. For nearly 20 years, the Manhattan Institute has sought to find and recognize these inspiring nonprofit leaders with the help of recommendations from people who know them.
Through our Civil Society Awards Program, we conduct a national search each year for the next generation of effective nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations that not only help those in trouble, but also keep people out of trouble in the first place.
Past award recipients have created job-training programs for ex-offenders, provided free tutoring and education to immigrants and refugees, and empowered the poor and disadvantaged through programs that help them realize their full potential.
If you know a group that is assisting those in need and helping people change the course of their lives, we would love to hear about them.
We are accepting online nominations for our Civil Society Awards until March 20, 2020. By nominating a nonprofit, you will be offering them a chance to win one of four $25,000 prizes and a trip to New York City to receive the award. For more information about the awards, past winners, and how to nominate a worthy group, please visit civilsocietyawards.com.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he directs the Tocqueville Project, and author of the new book, Who Killed Civil Society? Annie Dwyer is the director of the Civil Society Fellows Program at the Manhattan Institute.