A Sociological Surprise

Guest Post by Frank Weil, Chairman of The Intersector Project

Some 30 years ago, a Harvard graduate student was doing post-graduate research in Italy, trying to determine why some regional governments and their societies were doing better than others. The data about the differences were clear: some regions had measurably better schools, municipal services and justice systems. But what factors explained the disparity?

That researcher, former Dean of Harvard’s School of Government Robert Putman, came to a surprising conclusion. Of all things, choral societies appeared to be the distinguishing factor. The most successful regions had lots of choral societies; the least successful had few. Putnam was baffled, unable to explain how choral societies could so clearly and positively affect communal affairs.

After weeks of noodling that question, he had a breakthrough.

Choral societies functioned as a meeting place for people from all walks of life: business people, teachers, shopkeepers, farmers, firemen, police, lawyers, vintners, etc. And after singing together, these people went out to eat, drink, and socialize… You might guess where this is going. People who knew and trusted their fellow singers – as they must have to sing harmoniously – were more inclined to collaborate in addressing all sorts of municipal problems.

Bob Putnam’s simple but brilliant insight inspired my hope and search for a broader approach, perhaps even a mechanism, to bring strangers together to collaborate in solving common problems. People need both a forum and a language to address issues collectively.

In the same way, the three sectors of our society – public, private, and non-profit sectors – must find ways to work together to solve common problems.

Clearly, there are hurdles to this process – ignorance and distrust of each other sector being the highest – but the possibility and promise of a well-functioning society should motivate us to build intersectors, where people from each of those sectors can get together and address their common problems, as the singing folks in Italy have done for a very long time.