Community for Liberty – Ideas, Cooperation, and Yes, Tribalism

There is talk these days about tribalism and its negative impact on society. The discussion occurs more frequently within the context of the public square, specifically the perceived deleterious effect on the “public good.”

Certainly, we all could use a reminder that the most important part of “civil society” is being civil.  

That being said, humans are complex. We value our independence and doing things “my way,” yet we also need to belong. This contradiction (and tension) is actually something to embrace, and not criticize as contributing to a perceived breakdown of social norms. In truth, such complaints only mask a concern about a lack of communitarianism, where one’s identity is shaped by the social connections that surround the individuals, rather than by the individuals seeing the world through the lens of his or her own sense of self.

This is a very different concept than community.

The danger in tribalism is not that it can create barriers that limit our interpersonal growth and opportunity (it can). The real tragedy is that we forget that tribalism can still exist within a cooperative environment. It is possible to feel connected to something bigger even while being drawn into natural alliances and attractions that can appear insular and closed. Furthermore, such cooperation can actually improve our general condition.

The Nature of Cooperation

The most powerful aspect of free enterprise is the fact that it sparks cooperation – often involuntary – among tribes that otherwise would never enjoy nor desire to work together. Our desire for our own prosperity, however we define it, forces us to engage with thousands, nay millions of faceless individuals and entities who are also each pursuing a life according to his or her unique desires.

Applied to the larger geopolitical context it boils down to a simple but vital truism: When trade flows across borders, guns don’t.

I am not exactly worried about “guns crossing” among the various groups that form the DonorsTrust community. We do, however, occupy a unique Venn diagram between two distinct tribes – the doers and the donors.

At first glance it might appear that this is a lopsided relationship – one where the doers can literally not “do anything” without support from the doers. But that’s the business model of a non-profit organization – to achieve its mission, it not only produces little by way of self-sustaining revenue, but instead must rely on other people’s money.

The reality is there is more involuntary cooperation than meets the eye. The donor receives a specific practical benefit for giving away something of tangible value (a tax deduction, for example), but receives a general benefit that is calculated differently – a positive feeling, a sense of purpose or a nod towards religious duty, or a belief that his or her desire for a social outcome will be fulfilled. 

A Shared Heart for Freedom

Our community of donors is diverse.

Some are conservative in political demeanor, often backed up by strong religious beliefs that motivate their giving. Others are libertarian and passionately secular. We have subsets among our account-holder tribes – our under-40 group of professionals called Novus Society, secondary account-holders who work with us to ensure that the ones who first opened that DonorsTrust account have a legacy they would be proud of, and private foundations and trade associations that use the benefits offered by a donor-advised fund to meet short-term goals. Some support open borders, others desire strong limits on current and future immigrants. Some care exclusively about social issues, others couldn’t care less.

They do share a common value – and that is a belief that society is best served by groups that are voluntarily organized, privately supported, and that do not call for the government to increase in scope and scale. Outside of that, they are not bothered by whether others in the DonorsTrust community differ with them on specific issues or approaches. 

 Building the Community for Liberty

How does DonorsTrust foster the community for liberty?

We firstly are passionate about meeting our sacred promise to protect the intent of our account-holders, even if that means supporting groups that would be at odds with the personal beliefs of my staff. We do this by ensuring a personal relationship with the donor – regular communication about our products and services, phone calls to “check in” and get updates, occasional lunches or dinners that enable account-holders to gather with their peers for encouragement and direction.

We now provide a regular email to them with a list of newly approved charities that our clients value as well as interesting programs and new initiatives that many of our non-profit friends and allies have created. Nearly every week my colleagues and I are meeting with senior staff from non-profit policy groups who are in town. It is important that we have up-to date information on strategies, missions, changing personnel, and the successes/failures of these groups.

Secondly, we cannot meet our mission if the non-profits we support do not fulfill their mission and strategy. After all, DonorsTrust does not want to be a bank – a repository of cash, stock and property that merely accumulates interest. We expect and desire that there is an outward flow – a constant stream of revenue for groups striving to change aspects of our society, government, and culture. It is why we insist that every DonorsTrust account sunset at some point – thus putting the burden on DonorsTrust to bring new account-holders into our fold to ensure that revenue stream is available for decades to come.

At the end of the day, our giving is guided by our clients, but it is not without input from us to them about, for example, best practices, the perceived effectiveness of certain groups, and leadership transitions. It is why we spend our own money to support and attend dinners, receptions, and conferences that are hosted by these same groups. It signals not only that we value their work, but serves as a practical way for us to learn more about their activities, interact with current or potential clients, and ensure that we are providing feedback from our client’s interactions with those groups. By doing this we increases the collective sense of “the movement”  and strengthen the bonds of the community for liberty.

At DonorsTrust, we view our staff, donors, and doers as family. Family can be messy. Fences can and do make good neighbors as much as they provide necessary barriers. But ideas and principles are an important glue in the fabric of philanthropy. DonorsTrust is the hub of a wonderful, diverse, but motivated community. It’s a role we treasure.


  • Lawson Bader

    Since 2015, Lawson Bader serves as president and CEO of DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. Before coming to DonorsTrust, he amassed twenty years’ experience leading free-market research and advocacy groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He began his career in DC in as special assistant at the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, then worked as a legislative analyst/paralegal with Pierson, Semmes & Finley, and managed government relations at SRI International. He is a former weekly columnist with Human Events, and a current contributor to Kiplinger and member of the Forbes Nonprofit Council. He also serves on the governing boards of the Atlas Network, State Policy Network, and Oakseed Ministries International. Lawson earned a BA in political science from Wheaton College (IL) and an MA in public policy from The Johns Hopkins University.

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