Most of us will recall how Americans’ unique aptitude for forming what Alexis de Tocqueville termed public or civil associations — the precursors of today’s nonprofit and voluntary organizations — left a deep impression on the Frenchman when he visited the United States in the 1830s. As he noted in Democracy in America:

Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together. … To hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.

This well-known observation, however, is just the starting point for Tocqueville’s assessment.

Tocqueville went on to describe two roles he saw associations playing in the United States. The first was to provide a means for solving collective problems: “Among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” But by joining forces in an association, individuals could solve the collective action problem. This first role is akin to the conception of nonprofits that prevails today, one that emphasizes the importance of their direct contributions or impact.

The second role that Tocqueville saw associations playing is less familiar to us; indeed, there is a sense in which we have lost sight of it. This role was indirect: drawing individuals out of their private concerns, where they would otherwise stay focused and striving, and enabling them to be part of something larger than the circumstances of their own existence.

Read the full article about civil society and democratic citizenship by Daniel Stid at Stanford Social Innovation Review