Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Turning Tikkun Olam into Action

by George Vradenburg

On its twenty-fifth anniversary, Tikkun is wise to reflect on further steps that might be taken to enable practical implementation of its vision of generosity and caring.

Since leaving business (AOL/Time Warner) several years ago, I have lived in the world of philanthropy and civic engagement. This world is full of extraordinary individuals and institutions that have set their goals and measured their success by the extent to which they have had a positive impact on the lives of others.

Just a small sampling of the activities of the people with whom I work on a daily basis demonstrates the range of social conditions ("social" being defined broadly) in need of attention: they are engaged in emergency medical/response work to restore communities impacted by manmade or natural hazards; curing, treating, or supporting those impaired by physical or mental illness; educating and feeding children in conditions of poverty; bringing the joy, creative inspiration, and healing powers of great works of visual and performance art to those unable to afford access; protecting human rights; improving environmental conditions; and increasing skills and job opportunities for those struggling to find productive and satisfying work.

The vast scope of human needs reflects the great challenge of tikkun olam. Simply enacting a law requiring all to pledge "tikkun olam" won't do it. Notwithstanding the generosity of the American people, there is a scarcity of resources to meet all human needs, there are competing needs to be served, and there are few tools available to assess the relative social impact of different philanthropic and civic investments. Is an investment in potential cures for Alzheimer's more or less productive than one in improved educational opportunity for children? How does one compare the relative social return of an investment in the Red Cross with one in the Salvation Army? In the business world, financial investors have a common language and sophisticated research tools to assess relative financial returns. In the philanthropic world, social and civic investors have neither an accepted analytic approach nor the research infrastructure needed objectively to assess relative value of different philanthropic investments. It is not enough, in my view, to say, "let's do them all," because resources are simply not unlimited.

How are these choices to be made? In financial markets, individual and institutional investors make informed choices among thousands of firms across hundreds of sectors by comparing their relative financial condition and performance as described in public financial statements speaking the common language of "generally accepted accounting principles." While different investors will make different choices among firms, the investment community as a whole will reward higher performers and punish lesser performers and will tend to allocate more capital into those sectors of the economy that are growing and hence contributing more to aggregate economic performance.

In social markets, individuals, corporations, and governments all make decisions to make social or civic investments across thousands of service providers, social sectors, and social change models. Yet, no common language or research community analytics exist for assessing either relative firm impact on social conditions or relative sector performance against aggregate social targets. As a consequence, social capital is unable to reward good versus bad performers or to focus on those social sectors that contribute more to overall social outcomes than others. Government is an important investor in improved social outcomes, but it is not the only actor, nor should it be.

Given these defects in social markets, it is no wonder that America is under-investing and mis-investing its limited social capital and not making the social progress its national wealth suggests it is capable of. To do so, the development of the following framework for assessing social health and progress would be useful:

  1. Develop an agreed-upon classification of social conditions and sectors, aggregate metrics of social health conditions and performance, and an analytic framework for measuring the relative social contribution of different social sectors.
  2. Develop and require use by each social actor (NGOs, for-profits, governments) of "generally accepted social accounting standards" that permit analysis by an objective research community of comparative social performance at the individual actor level.
  3. Apply the sanctions provided for in existing securities law to these statements.

The time has come to turn the prophetic vision of a generous and caring society into a working reality through the development of a widely accepted set of measures and decision tools comparable in sophistication and effectiveness to those in the financial sphere. Short of that, prophetic visions will remain just that.

George and Trish Vradenburg are co-publishers of Tikkun.

Source Citation: Vradenburg, George. 2011. Turning Tikkun Olam into Action. Tikkun 26(1): 5

tags: Activism, Editorial, Philanthropy  
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