Peter Dunn

Pete’s Perspectives: The Role of Civic Engagement in the Fabric of our Nation

Peter Dunn reflects on the power of civic engagement and the purpose of the Central New York Community Foundation.

As I walked through Hanover Square in downtown Syracuse recently on my way between appointments, I was surprised to find a plaque memorializing an 1831 visit to Syracuse by Alexis de Tocqueville during his tour of the United States and Canada. De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, government official, social reformer and political theorist visiting our country to do a report on our prison system, but ended up completing something much grander. As a result of his observations, study and discussions, he published two volumes, Democracy in America, in 1835 and 1840 that are to this day regarded as one of the most important commentaries on our nation and its people.

De Tocqueville celebrated our inclination to take voluntary action to further the common good. He wrote:

“I have often seen Americans make large and genuine sacrifices to the public good, and I have noted on countless occasions that when necessary they almost never fail to lend one another a helping hand.”

In order to amplify the effectiveness and impact of these communal activities, de Tocqueville noted the distinctive tendency of Americans to create associations and to coalesce on behalf of others:

“Americans group together to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, and dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.”

At an early stage in the life of our nation, de Tocqueville astutely noted the importance of civic engagement and philanthropy as part of the glue that not only keeps us together, but also makes us different from many other places around the world. To this day, our national tax system is ostensibly a reflection of these values and is structured to incentivize gifts by individuals to charitable organizations. Whether the missions of the organizations to which donors give their resources jibes with official government policy or not, an incentive in the form of a potential tax deduction is provided. Similarly, as a society we also provide a subsidy in the form of tax exemption to an incredibly broad array of institutions and associations, like the Community Foundation, that have been created to foster the common good in one form or another.

To my mind, the mission of the Community Foundation rings true with de Tocqueville’s observations about the value of giving and civic engagement: our mission is to foster a thriving Central New York community, inspire greater giving, celebrate legacy and steward charitable resources for today and tomorrow. In our own way, for the last 92 years we have been an anchor institution for the common good of our region.

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