Local Knowledge: Caring Communities: The Role of Nonprofits in Rebuilding the Gulf Coast
The idea of "social entrepreneurship"-innovation in the philanthropic sector to fill in the gaps left by both the market sector and the state sector-has become a hot topic in the last decade. People increasingly wonder how nonprofit enterprises and social entrepreneurs can effectively mimic the successes of the market economy in increasing human welfare, choice, and dignity without either the profit-loss system of markets or the democratic and constitutional checks of the public sector.
So wide is the field of social entrepreneurship and so broad the definition that it is helpful to have a lens through which to focus the study of the area. The recovery of the Gulf Coast following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provides such a lens. Since 2005, researchers from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University have studied how different social, legal, political, and economic institutions affected communities before, during, and after the hurricane, with an eye to learning what works in disaster preparedness and recovery.
Across the Gulf Coast, the voices of people affected by Katrina have showed us how people acquire knowledge and how people perceive government, businesses, and community efforts. Social scientific research, based on over 450 hours of interviews with people from the Gulf Coast, is critical to better understanding how people, businesses, and communities prepare for and rebuild after disasters and the role that the for-profit, nonprofit, and public sectors play in every day social and economic interactions.
Tocqueville's observation about the American tendency to form voluntary associations holds true today. The nonprofit sector plays a vital role in a society of free and responsible individuals. The face-to-face forces of reputation and community membership not only coordinate highly effective small-scale projects that support those in need, but they provide a sense of community and identity to us all.
This issue of Local Knowledge seeks to pay attention to and increase our understanding of the necessity and vitality of such associations and the work of social entrepreneurs in society, both in normal times and in those that are most trying.