Strengthening the institutions
On Colin Powell, the "NGO founder" addiction, and worthy causes
In some circles, the phrase "my NGO" (a non-governmental organization) is used without hesitation or irony -- it is an in-group signal that the user belongs (or aspires to belong) to a high-minded global elite. Founding an NGO also happens to be one of the ways in which young people try to gain admission to elite colleges.
■ The instinct to jump in and solve problems is laudable. Society benefits from having sharp people who want to get their hands dirty and resolve the problems they see in the world. To channel Theodore Roosevelt, "It is not the critic who counts [...] The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood [...] who spends himself in a worthy cause".
■ But if we do too much to praise and reward only the "founders", we run the risk of under-investing in our institutions. The world needs people who sustain and maintain the institutions that already exist, whether we call them trustees or stewards, custodians or caretakers. Trustees are essential -- just as much as founders. And they are essential both high and low -- at the heights of power as well as at the most pedestrian of community levels.
■ In a reflection on one of the prominent lives lost in 2021, Dr. Kori Schake eulogized Secretary Colin Powell with the praise that he "strengthened the institutions he led". Those words ought to be read as extraordinarily high praise.
■ Institutions need to be revitalized and given purpose if they are to remain healthy. The place of cancer in medicine is far distant from where it was when the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913. America has fought a World War and a Cold War (not to mention other wars, both declared and undeclared) since the American Legion was formed in 1919. And among the many evolutionary changes that have reached the Boy Scouts of America since 1910, a thousand girls have earned the Eagle Scout Award. Merely cruising with inertia is a sure way for an institution to decline and die.
■ With all due respect to the newborn NGOs that solve new and novel problems, it should not be more praiseworthy to start up an NGO than to direct the forces of an existing organization into solving the same problems. The world is surely better-off because the Rotary Club (established in 1905) took on the challenge to eradicate polio in 1979, or because Kiwanis (founded in 1915) pivoted to a mission to fighting tetanus in 2010. The heritage service organizations across America's landscape are trying to reboot themselves, and they have a lot of good work left to do.
■ Achieving a giant mission requires organization and structure. And, invariably, starting institutions and getting their momentum underway requires founders to pour energy and time into the goal. That investment might not always be best spent on startup activities, especially if the organization isn't going to stick around for long. There are lots of institutions already crying out for new blood and innovative missions.
■ It isn't wrong for people to want to put the words "Founder and CEO" on their resumes -- but a smart society would seek to lavish at least as much reward on the effective "vice president of community service" or the devoted project chairperson who kept the fire burning for their time within a local chapter of a bigger organization.
■ Correcting that mindset is a mission not only for college admissions counselors, but for parents and teachers, employers and counselors, grandparents and neighbors. Sometimes new is necessary -- but the fact viewers have rewarded literally dozens of home-renovation shows in the television market shows that we already know that sometimes good things already exist and merely need some new hands to invigorate and strengthen them.