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August 31, 2007

Munny, or Our Fucked Up Society Part 5673

I'm a professional fundraiser for a nonprofit organization.

How fucked up is that?

It just hit me. I'm sitting here in a cafe, killing an hour before I go to a meeting at another nonprofit organization (where I will be giving my work for free), and I pulled out a book to read, one I'm reading to be better able to raise funds for yet another nonprofit organization where I also give my work for free.

I was just at the Craigslist Nonprofit Bootcamp in the Bay Area two weekends ago and the keynote speaker pointed out that nonprofit people are more obsessed with money than businesspeople. Yeah, even the ones who deal with money.

And it's true. Our society is so centered around money, that any endeavor that doesn't have money-making at its heart has to spend more time proving its money-worthiness than for-profit endeavors. This includes academia, social service (both government and private), arts and culture at all levels, etc.

How fucked up is that?

How fucked up is it that someone at my organization spent money buying a book that teaches us how to convince people to give us money so that we don't have to be concerned about earning it? How fucked up is it that convincing people to be generous for a good cause is an industry? How fucked up is it that all of my friends--all of them--that I met doing nonprofit work, who have stayed in nonprofit work, have all ended up going into some aspect of nonprofit development or funding, because that's the logical step when you get good at what you do?

Of course, it makes sense that money is at the center of everything because, although it behaves erratically, money is the only measurable quantity of any importance in our lives. The moment you point out anything else measurable--the amount of a harvest, the loss of polar ice, the progress of a student ... or of a disease--its meaning--or meaningfulness--can be directly translated into a currency amount.

Which means the obvious, of course: that money has many layers and regions of meaning, and its behavior and idiom are bigger than we give it credit for on a day-to-day basis. (Sidetrack: note the use of "credit" in the previous sentence, i.e. a promissory monetary value.) Money is neither simply a strange and arbitrary evil at the root of all social ills, nor simply a way--the way--we assess and assign value to objects, labor, and processes.

There are a number of layers of meaning even within the simple process of raising funds for a nonprofit. For example, my current place of work has an extremely healthy system of funding streams, because they are diverse, and because the org keeps a good staff around to continually expand on existing streams and look for and establish new ones. Also, within each stream (say: individual giving, or private foundations) we have a very diverse population of donors and funders, from the very small and limited to the very wealthy and large.

This is because our mission and programs appeal to a very diverse set of people, yes, but it also means that we are able to articulate a vision of our mission and programs that appeals to a diversity of folks. And it also means that the need to appeal to a diverse set of people causes us to articulate an appealing and layered vision of our mission and program. And it also means that the need to articulate an appealing and layered vision of our mission and program forces us to have an appealing and layered mission and program, as well.

Do you like the palindrome nature of that argument? Which came first: the programmatic value or the healthy funding streams?

Ask that question of businesses as well. Which came first: the great business plan or the venture capital? Any dilettante will tell you that you can't get capital without a great biz plan, but can you create a great biz plan without knowing who it is that might fund you?

Ask that of great art. The masterpieces of 500 years ago were all commissioned. Think about that for a second. "Here's some money. Paint something on that wall that will brighten up the room and make me look wealthy." Why can't that be the straw that builds the camel's headdress? Or the new grant the Moneybags Foundation created for a specific purpose: why can't that grant be the thing that causes today's artist to take a simple step out of the comfort zone and into something great?

(Who am I arguing with? Myself?)

It's also not a simple bilateral assignment of value: good/bad; yes/no. Proclaiming an endeavor can start the money flowing, but only fulfilling the promise can keep it coming or increase it. So you shape a mission/program that will appeal to a diversity and then you have to start spinning plates. It's the desire of the diverse funding sources that you be this, that and the other thing ... plus, that thing over there, too. So you say you will. And if you're successful in being those things, very often what you've proven is not your essential virtue, but rather your ability to balance competing demands.

And this is one of the aspects of a healthy organization: the ability to balance a variety of equally urgent demands and satisfy them all. In this way, funding can both stimulate the development of an essential success skill that can be applied to all aspects of the org, and also measure and reward the development of that skill.

A bad org--or artist--or researcher--will create a program based on the stated desires of funders, so you don't want to do that. In that way, money corrupts--and it does so easily and thoroughly. And as time goes on and the corruption (otherwise known as "mission drift") works its black magic, the org's mission and programs become less coherent and successful and the funders leave the building. So an organization unable to maintain its essential purpose against the temptation of easy money is found out. No matter what people may think of their own judgment, hardened bullshit can be very hard to detect. But money simply will not flow towards the corrupted mission ... and will flow toward the tended mission, no matter how personally corrupt its gardeners are.

This is story of George W. Bush. He is criticized for staying a course that won't work, but look at his administration from the standpoint of mission, vision, and program. No president since FDR can be said to have evidenced so little mission drift as Dubya. He articulated a vision of his mission and programs which appealed to a diversity of people, and the money flowed toward it and kept flowing. It still hasn't stopped. And has he kept his promises? Fuck yeah. Has he followed his mission? Fuck yeah! Has he established and stabilized the programs he said he would? Fuck yeah! We need more nonprofit E.D.s like him.

Prob is, of course, our society is neither a special interest, nor a business. And running it like one is killing us. But that's a bit too much of a digression now. What was my point?

Oh yeah, money senses both purity and corruption, not of human morality, but rather of stated purpose. Money can't tell you if someone is good or bad, but it can tell you to a nicety if someone is successful and consistent in their goodness or badness.

Money is incredibly sensitive to variations in that value. It's the ultimate liquid, flowing into every possible crevice. And it's the people who deal the most with it--the financiers and appropriaters and uber-comptrollers--who understand this the best. It's also they who fall most easily prey to the idea that money is the only measurement of value. We all know this.

What's difficult to realize is that, although even the smallest child has a grasp of the concept that money isn't the only measurement of value, even the most sophisticated, well-educated adults often don't have a grasp of the simple fact that money is one of the best measurements of social value we've come up with so far.

Not the only one. And certainly not one you would ever want to use in isolation. But one of the best ones? Definitely.

I can't tell you how uncomfortable this train of thought makes me.

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