Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So you want to save the world...

ello my non-existent lovelies,

They say tone means much in this lavish world of dots and dashes that we all spend far too much time living in so let me invoke the spring zephyr to whirl me into the zeitgeist of your collective unconscious. Potential run-on sentences and smug post-modern self-awareness aside, I feel the need to rave about the daze we currently find ourselves in.

The world is going to hell in a rather distastefully purchased Prada handbag and, we, being the good Millennials that we are, are actually stepping up to do something about it. Much to the shock of the previous generations we are engaged and in tune with the world in ways and numbers never been seen before. And this is a wonderful phenomenon that shouldn’t be discouraged but it does need to be directed. It seems now that everyone I know is working for a non-profit, myself included. Every day on Facebook I get invited to fundraising events that my friends are throwing for their cause and dutifully attend to support them, but in the back of my mind I can’t help but think, yes, but what about “my cause”?

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some new-aged-social-responsibility-pissing-contest we’ve all engaged in. Having ‘a cause’ isn’t just the best new single’s bar in town – although on a side note it isn’t half bad - it comes from a real place and a drive to change the world because we don’t have another choice. If we don’t change it now we won’t be able to later; that message has been clearly etched in our head from masturbating to an inconvenient truth until we chaffed.

The problem is that social responsibility is going to become the new green-washing as anarchy activism becomes the new black. The result of course is that we get death by pilot project, or in this case charity burnout. No one will want to give any more because it doesn’t seem like it is actually doing anything, which is fair, because it probably won’t be.

I may not have done very well in my microeconomics class, but I seem to remember a theory about marginal value going down the more businesses enter the market. The more non-profits that get in the game the less money there is to go around, and it’s not like the pool of money to draw from is going to get magically bigger. We are not, after all, the US Federal Reserve.

So now then, my fellow riled up bedmates who now wish to bludgeon me with a blunt object because I’ve popped your ability to sleep at night, what shall we do? Well, for starters, we have to actually dig deep and do our research. I know it feels like we are already giving more time than we have by volunteering in record numbers but that actually isn’t enough. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves why are we actually volunteering? What does this non-profit tangibly contribute to the world, and is the non-profit itself sustainable? We need to stop creating new non-profits just because we can, and only create them when we must. Make no mistake, I am not simply advocating that we go out and join the biggest organization, many of them are bloated and would be more useful to us if they folded, but we actually have to look behind the curtain to see truth.

In some cases, we also need to not join with non-profits. This is not to say we should do nothing, but there are many advocacy groups and governmental organizations that could use the skills and tools that we bring can bring them. After all, if the end goal of this movement is to change the world for the better someone is going to have to write the new laws. Someone is going to have to get the message out to the public as to why this is in our best interest, even if it means knocking on all the doors in your neighborhood.

So, you want to change the world, that’s great, come help us out. But don’t do it blindly, do it because you know in your heart that you have to, and do it with a group of people who are actually going to create a better sustainable future for us all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Insomniadic Ramblings on art and non-profits

Being someone who works in both the arts and non-profit sector I often find myself examining the issue of funding: mainly how to enough to get enough to actually do something. Let me state right at the outset that I hate the idea of asking people for money, it brings up a bitter taste in the back of my mouth. I’m not sure if it is just my pride, or if it’s that I hold what I do in high enough regard that I feel like people should simply want to support a worthy project or cause, but it serves as a major stumbling block.

Where I am actually going with this is the seemingly precarious super structure that surrounds the art / non-profit sector. It is supported almost entirely from within the community itself. This is great for fostering a tight-knit group of inspired people; the only problem is no one in the group actually has any money. Instead, the little money that gets infused into the sector via grants gets spread around to everyone by events like opening galas and silent auctions. It is actually a fairly clever way of circumventing the system in order to keep more non-profits afloat and doing great work. It does however have the fatal flaw of being unsustainable as little new money is being injected via patrons outside the social circles and government funding is being cut back.

At first the obvious solution then seems to be to just appeal to a broader market. If the product is more marketable or more mainstream more people will want to come out to the various events and the process can begin to snowball uphill instead of down. The major issue with that ideas is that not only is it trying to defy physics, it also fails to take into account climate change. By this I of course mean that no one has any money right now.

Now, this is actually quite a shocking idea. I mean I know that I don’t have any money, and I’m used to that. It’s been that way since I’ve started my adult life so the current crisis doesn’t feel much different. Further to the point, I have always seen myself working in the arts sector so I never really expected to have much, but in the back of my head there was always this idea of a middle class that was actually doing ok. In the back of my head if I was really hard up for cash I could pander to the mainstream, only now, it seems like selling out isn’t actually an option because there is no one to sell out to. The middle class was floating on plastic boats made of imaginary numbers and the invisible hand of the market suddenly became a bitch slap backhand.

So where then does that leave the arts / non-profit sector, where will we find our answers and salvation? Luckily, at least in the case of the arts, salvation is the last thing it is ever going to need. It will innovate because it has to. The arts will not cease to be because there is no money; in fact it very well might thrive because of it. If space is too expensive, bring-your-own-venue will become the hottest new buzzword and communes the newest living arrangement. This idea also has the benefit of needing less heat as more bodies in a tighter space can double as a furnace. Art cannot and will not die because it is what fuels the soul when it needs refueling.

As for the actual non-profit sector on a whole, this seems less clear. Oddly enough people seem to be giving more even though they have less. It is almost as if a renewed human spirit of giving and understanding is rising from the ashes of dysfunctional macroeconomics. The real question is if this is a false hope or not. People keep thinking things are going to get better but what if they do not. I for one think people will keep giving; it’s just that what we give will change. People will give what they can and although it will not be much it will feel like more. Perhaps it is simply time for a paradigm shift of what is actually important and what we actually need. If this is the case than once again the arts will flourish, it will cheer us up when we need it, and provide a hard mirror when we begin to think too highly of ourselves. With this in mind it can come as little surprise that I will continue to work with both the arts and non-profits as they seem to be two of the few business ventures that are actually adjusting fast enough for our ever-changing world.