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The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

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?


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Posted in accountability and equality and flexibility and power and professionalism.

4 comments

4 Replies

  1. Liam, Paul, Rosemary, Sally – we want to nominate your blog for the Blog of the Year Award! The rules and more are here: http://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/blog-of-the-year-award/

  2. This is an excellent post! When i was a student i was involved with a couple of student organisations and it was exactly as you say, sleeping in community centres, camping or sleeping on friend’s floors.

    I’ve worked for a lot of charities since and it’s all hotels and taxis as you say. Some charities are more aware of how this looks though and try to cut back or at least have a budget that only allows for basic hotels etc and taxis only when necessary. Donors are quite savvy too and many may be less likely to donate to charities they know are using expensive hotels etc.

    Hotels can offer networking opportunities though, one charity worked for had a favoured B&B and the manager had become an ambassador for the charity’s cause as well as being a particularly entertaining host.

  3. Thanks Kaye! Very honoured!
    Will think about who we should pass this honour along to…
    Cheers!
    Liam

  4. Hi there!
    Thanks for weighing in!
    I struggled with this one for quite a while before posting it, as it can be hard to talk about this stuff, without coming off as judgemental of people who are so used to certain ways of doing things, that they would be offended by the idea of *not* staying in a hotel/taking a taxi…
    It also can lead into a much broader (and more challenging) discussion about ‘living standards’ and privilege, which is a blog I’d Love to write someday, but is maybe not one for this site…
    The hotels as networking opportunities is an interesting one, and I think it is a result of a) learning from the corporate world, and b) people still craving that unstructured space, but without getting to know each other *too* well (ie – becoming *gasp* friends!)… I think in worlds where hotels and the spending culture are so widespread, those kinds of networking moments are the closest thing to a human interaction you can often find, even if they are a poor substitute for sitting up late in someone’s living room and having whatever conversation happens to emerge in the moment 😉
    Thanks again for reading and sharing!
    Liam


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