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Support America's nonprofit heroes

By Wallis Annenberg, Special to CNN
updated 7:50 AM EST, Fri November 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Annenberg: 2012 has reminded us of need for charities to help respond to disaster, chaos
  • She says nonprofit organizations are fulfilling vital needs around the world
  • She says they can't replace governments; problems outstrip their resources
  • Annenberg: Where nonprofits can shine is to focus on supporting the innovators

Editor's note: Wallis Annenberg is chairman of the board of the Annenberg Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation is providing training to this year's Top 10 CNN Heroes. "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" airs live at 9 p.m. ET Sunday.

(CNN) -- From the pounding waters of Superstorm Sandy to a persistent global economic slowdown and continued chaos in the Middle East -- 2012 has been a year of enormous challenges. Even in a culture such as ours, which values charity, generosity and individual initiative, it's easy to feel helpless in the face of such crushing problems.

Thanks to "CNN Heroes," for all that's going wrong, we can also see powerful examples of what's going right. We can see the courageous, deeply committed women and men who are rolling up their sleeves and meeting our most pressing public needs all across the world.

Take Malya Villard-Appolon of Haiti, a rape survivor who has braved death threats to help heal thousands of other rape survivors.

Wallis Annenberg
Wallis Annenberg
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Or Leo McCarthy of Butte, Montana, whose daughter's death at the hands of a drunken driver has led him to create college scholarships for those who abstain from alcohol until 21.

Or Razia Jan of Afghanistan, who is providing free education to hundreds of rural Afghani girls who had been denied it -- bucking a deeply entrenched culture as well as the hostile opposition of armed groups.

Nonprofit organizations at home and around the world are more than an inspiration. They are a vital lifeline for millions. Can we even imagine a national disaster such as Sandy without community groups to hand out food and fuel and emergency shelter?

Can we even comprehend how crowded and overtaxed our ERs would be without community health clinics to fill in the gaps in our health care system? Can we even fathom a world where most museums and art galleries and philharmonics had to shut their doors?

These kinds of quiet revolutions -- individuals standing up, banding together and making simple but profound changes in the way things are -- are happening all over the world.

CNN Hero changing the block
Kid Rock, CNN Hero surprise wounded vet
CNN Heroes: Leo McCarthy
Top 10 CNN Hero: Malya Villard-Appolon
CNN Heroes: Razia Jan
A fresh start for 'motel kids'

Some have made the argument that nonprofits play such a strong role that we can do without government's role in these same areas. I believe this is a misunderstanding of nonprofits' true purpose and importance.

The greatest philanthropic efforts are a drop in the bucket when you consider the scale of our problems. That's true even for the Annenberg Foundation, one of the top private philanthropies in the country. There's no way for us to say "we're falling behind in global reading and math scores; here's a check to solve that problem." We couldn't put enough zeros on a check to do it.

What we can do is something that government very often cannot. We can find and reward true innovation: People who are breaking new ground. New ways of helping kids to learn. New ways of providing housing and life skills to the homeless. New ways of expanding women's rights. New ways of exposing children to the joy and wonder of fine art. New ways of teaching the next generation of journalists about the power and risks of social media.

At the Annenberg Foundation, we have found that the most effective nonprofits are like the CNN Heroes -- organizations with strong and visionary leaders and a bold, new approach to getting the job done. Our hope is that in supporting them -- especially smaller nonprofits, still struggling to survive and to thrive -- we will help them get wider attention and become models across the world. Practically speaking, that's the only way we can begin to make a measurable difference.

That's why we are doing what we can to help the CNN Heroes themselves by providing training that we hope will strengthen their leadership and improve the scope and strength of their work. Our Annenberg Alchemy initiative has already trained 1,400 nonprofit leaders in this country -- helping them to run their organizations more effectively, raise millions more in crucially needed funds and communicate their needs and their goals more clearly and fully.

What does all of this mean for Americans who want to make a difference of their own?

It means you should recognize and support our 1.4 million nonprofits as generously as you can. It means you should look for newer and smaller nonprofits that are leading, experimenting and trying to change the way we solve our problems -- by other nonprofits and by government as well. And it means that among our many blessings this holiday season is a deeply ingrained tradition of caring individuals doing what they can to create a better, fairer, more just world.

Want more of them? All you have to do is join them.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wallis Annenberg.

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