Civil Society Project

The Civil Society Project (CSP) is a nonprofit organization that promotes “a recovery of the non-governmental institutions of American society as the indispensable foundation of public virtue and democratic competence.”

Founded in 1994 by former White House aide Don Eberly, CSP believes that the “great challenge” facing the United States is to rebuild nongovernmental institutions so that they can replace the failed welfare state.

One of the reasons for declining civic participation, insists CSP, is that individual Americans have grown accustomed to looking to government bureaucrats to solve problems. By relying on families, neighborhoods, civic associations, and other voluntary groups to address public problems, Americans can develop the moral traits necessary for democratic citizenship.

Through hundreds of articles, books, speeches and interviews, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based CSP disseminates its civil society message both domestically and internationally. In addition, CSP has advised several U.S. Presidents and other national political figures on how to promote civic renewal.

Transcending Partisan Gridlock

Recognizing the public’s disillusionment with government, and sympathizing with their frustration with partisan stalemates, CSP consults with policymakers to develop non-legislative ideas that can help transcend bitter disputes. “Most political people want something more than the sterile positions of the past,” Eberly told the San Jose Mercury News in 1997.

The previous year, Eberly had met with Clinton White House advisor Dick Morris to discuss civil society alternatives (Morris later incorporated these themes into Clinton’s re-election campaign). Eberly’s proposed initiatives included support for uniforms in public schools, and for teen curfews to combat youth violence.

Organizing a Presidential Volunteerism Summit

CSP worked with the Clinton White House to promote civil society initiatives by helping organize the April 1997 “President’s Summit on America’s Future.” Chaired by General Colin Powell, the Philadelphia event brought together governors, mayors, businessmen, and charity leaders to promote volunteerism. Joining President Clinton were former presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

In particular, the Summit meeting identified the importance of community-based organizations to provide 15 million at-risk children with continuing relationships with caring adults; a safe place to spend after-school hours; and an opportunity to “give back” through their own community service.

Eberly moderated a Summit panel focusing on how to attract young people to groups like the Boy Scouts and parents to parent-teacher associations. In an op-ed appearing in the San Antonio Express-News on the Summit’s first day, Eberly offered the participants general principles on the role of volunteerism. These included:

  • Volunteerism isn’t just about filling the gap left by government. Individuals should give of themselves because “giving is an essential part of being human.”
  • Volunteerism celebrates not so much the power of the individual as the power of individuals working together.
  • Volunteers are no substitute for families. While children need many mentors, there is no example of millions of volunteers signing up to raise other people’s children.

Putting “Faith” in the White House

In December 2000, President-elect George W. Bush chose Civil Society Project founder Don Eberly to head a transition advisory team that would create a new White House office on community and faith-based organizations.

During the campaign, Bush had frequently promoted the use of community groups for social services. The proposed office would consolidate everything the Administration planned to do to encourage “community-based solutions to social problems.” (Eberly had already worked with then-Governor Bush to establish the Texas Fatherhood Initiative.)

In early 2001, President Bush named Eberly Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Eberly helped implement Bush’s plan to direct up to $8 billion in federal financing to private charities, or “armies of compassion,” to combat social ills.

In response to critics who said the effort blurred the constitutional distinction between church and state, Eberly told the Lancaster New Era in January 2001: “We’re not going to have the federal government advocating religion. But on the other hand, you shouldn’t exclude (faith-based) programs from participating.”

Promoting Civil Society on a Global Scale

In 2005, Eberly left the Bush Administration and resumed advocating for civil society issues at CSP.

Eberly says the September 11 terrorist attacks influenced him to expand CSP’s advocacy on an international scale. As CSP’s website explains, “American institutions are in a position to promote ideas and model programs for the development of civic, democratic and economic institutions worldwide.”

Eberly’s 1994 book Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century has been translated into Arabic and is widely circulated via pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.

In 2008, Eberly wrote a book called The Rise of Global Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up. Named by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of the year’s top 10 books, it makes the case that charitable giving is eclipsing governmental aid and becoming the dominant form of U.S. influence in the world.

“The most important thing for people to appreciate,” wrote Eberly, “is that 20 years ago, 70 percent of all assistance to the world came from the government; today, 85 percent is private.”

Making Compassion America’s Most Important Export

Prior to his return to CSP in 2005, Eberly helped lead the relief effort at the U.S. State Department for victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. Within days of the disaster, more than $2 billion in private U.S. donations – three times the government offer – poured into the relief fund.

Private relief worldwide totaled $11 billion.

Eberly says American generosity had an immediate effect on public opinion toward the U.S. He told the Sunday News in 2008: “In Indonesia, the most Muslim nation on Earth, attitudes that were 60 percent negative toward America prior to the outpouring of aid became positive by the same percentage following it – which is why I have called compassion America’s most consequential export.”