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October 6, 2015 / Ciara Myers, Editor

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough

by Tamara Copeland
President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last week, President Obama stood before the American people and again professed great sadness at another mass shooting in America. I’m not sure if he has said these exact words before, but I hadn’t heard them. He said that “thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.”

I had thought an appropriate response would occur following the killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In fact, at the time there was legislation pending in Congress that could have helped to prevent similar occurrences in the future. I was  certain of that legislation’s passage when President Obama brought some of the parents of those children to speak to Congress about the need for background checks and the need to limit the sale of some semi-automatic weapons. But it wasn’t enough. The legislation failed.

Mass shootings are becoming so commonplace that we have started to accept them as the norm. The national news no longer reports all of them, only the most serious. Consider this recent article in the Washington Post, quoting The Economist,

“ ‘Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing,’ The Economist wrote in response to the Charleston massacre. ‘This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.’ ” 

But I continue to believe that America is better than that. And, I continue to believe that my sector –philanthropy – can and will play a leadership role. Why? Because we have on another problem that was also once considered intractable – smoking.

In the early 1960s, cigarette use had reached its peak. Smoking had become a societal norm. Even with studies from the U.S. Surgeon General and advocacy by countless groups, the number of users was not declining at an appreciable rate. In 1991 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) courageously decided that it was going to work for the health of the country and support anti-smoking campaigns. Their decades-long, concentrated effort contributed to a major decline in smoking. Leadership mattered.

Well, now we have another public health problem in America. Just two days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a study on mass shootings from the University of Alabama, The U.S. represents less than 5% of the 7.3 billion global population but accounted for 31% of global mass shooters during the period from 1966 to 2012, more than any other country.” 

Can philanthropy be the conscience of society? Can philanthropy be the vehicle to promote accessible mental health care for those who need it? Can philanthropy be the broker who finds a path of reasonableness between those who want to ban the sale of guns and those who feel they have the right to own them with no limitations? Is this another public health tragedy to be tackled by Robert Wood Johnson? Perhaps, but RWJF isn’t the only funder with the resources and commitment to address this problem. Other national funders could step up to take on this challenge as could a collective of local funders who decide to collaborate on tackling this problem. Paul Ylvisaker, a former executive at the Ford Foundation, once described philanthropy as “society’s passing gear.” We need that vision and that commitment to overtake this problem. It takes leadership.

Philanthropy led before. I think philanthropy can again.

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. Who will lead? I’m putting my faith in philanthropy.

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