‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’
Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.
But indulge me…
Necessity breeds reciprocity
In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.
Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?
Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?
Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?
Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.
Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.
Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.
Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.
In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.
Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.
Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.
Slummin’ with students
Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.
It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.
And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.
If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.
Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.
In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.
Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.
‘But!… But!… But!…’
I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’
To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?
The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.
But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.
What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?
What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?
What might you do instead?