The Four-Legged Stool
“Like a milking stool, society becomes dysfunctional if any leg is short or weak. The current argument is that civil society is the short, or weak, leg and thus our societal disarray.” In this report to the Kettering Foundation, John McKnight examines this argument, making a case for the strengths of and the need for a stronger associational life for citizens.
McKnight distinguishes associations from not-for-profit corporations, though they are often combined as the third leg of a “three-legged stool,” the other legs being business and government. He points out their differences: not-for-profit corporations are usually formal and hierarchical, whereas associations tend to be informal and horizontal; not-for-profits use the special knowledge of professionals and experts to perform their functions, while associations generally use the experience and knowledge of member citizens.
Society, McKnight argues, is actually like a four-legged stool, with associations being the fourth support. However, our focus on the three institutional legs has obscured the presence and vitality of the fourth.
Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this powerful role of citizens in a democracy—the power of association. In associations, he saw Americans making power. In voting, he saw them delegating power. As our three major institutions are pulling back from local community space—governments cut budgets, not-for-profits reduce programs, and businesses contract—the need for an alternative source of production becomes clear. Our future well-being depends on our rediscovery and nurturing of the fourth leg of the American stool—associational life.
John McKnight is professor emeritus and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is also the author of Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Identifying and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (ACTA Publications, 1993; with Jody Kretzmann), The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits (Basic Books, 1995), and The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (Berrett-Koehler, 2010; with Peter Block).