Opinion: Our special US relationship is to be nurtured

Geraldine Peacock, charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity

In 1969, I boarded a plane for California to become a postgraduate student at the University of California, to study Criminology and Sociology in the land of Vietnam protests, Woodstock and people going to San Francisco with flowers in their hair.

Although a little apprehensive, I felt pretty sure it would be 'cool' because the Americans were so like us. I soon came to discover that this was not the case.

Take language. The first lesson I learned was not to ask the astonished guy sitting next to me if I could borrow a rubber when I made a mistake on my application form. It meant something entirely different and I have used the term eraser ever since. Culture was another major difference - people were so positive. They believed they could make it big, saw opportunities not barriers, worked their way through university and expected little from the state.

I was reminded of such comparisons when I recently set out to Boston to sit on the advisory board for Harvard Business School's initiative on social enterprise. Again, I was surprised, despite the rich heritage our countries share, by how much our cultures differ, and by how that impacts on non-profit activity. The dean of the school characterised their approach to non-profit activity as "doing well by doing good". By this he meant that business often succeeds in the US because it has a social dimension built in, the "blended value" concept.

In the US, the major corporations, trusts and foundations are the main source of funding for the non-profit sector. As such, they can give a donatory rather than an empowering feel to philanthropy. The links with government are mainly around delivery. In this country, the charitable sector has, despite fears of dependency on government funding, developed key dialogues and partnerships with statutory and other sectors. These have fundamentally changed the positioning of our sector and the way it influences policy and shapes public services.

The close relationship between the UK and the US allows us to celebrate our differences and learn from each other. Higher education institutions have a key role to play, through research and exchange visits, in promoting this. So let's nurture our links and turn up the heat a little.

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