Rob Walker has a recent column in Slate with a provocative suggestion:
Why do agencies need to go find a client that has ideas about social or environmental responsibility? Don’t the smart folks at the agencies have any such ideas of their own? Well, then, pick one, forget about finding a client, and go out there and use your persuasion skills to make a positive change in the world.
Such a campaign might actually help the overall image of your profession—you know, how mostly what you do is create the endless barrage of sales pitches that encouraged Americans to spend way beyond their means. (Congrats on your success with that, by the way.) Maybe you’d have a convincing case study to point to that shows your profession—or your agency, at least—has something going for it besides innovation and smarts: actual values.
This picks up on an idea that he floated in his own blog that I’d been meaning to discuss further, earlier, and will now. The basic thrust is an important one for all of us to internalize as the structure of our economy and society, er, “re-arranges.
Robert Putnam made far too much of the collapse of community in the United States by tracking the decrease in bowling leagues and voluntary organizations. But there’s certainly something going on there, and part of what it is, is a shift in the sense of community and responsibility from a very local, conservative and exclusionary one – my town, full of people like me – toward a more global awareness and sense of responsibility. There’s a trade-off here, to be sure, but I think it would be difficult to argue that the rise of the non-profit sector in the United States over the last generation is a basically bad thing, even if it may owe something to the decline in Elks Lodges.
But this can go too far, and as with many other things there’s been a tendency for “responsibility” to become just another consumption line-item: put your donation to WWF/ACLU/MoveOn/NPR/etc. on the plastic, get your bumper sticker and tote bag as public display of responsible citizenship, and move on to other things.
There’s been a growing awareness in the non-profit community for some time – even before the current economic downturn (the bursting of the first dot.com bubble was a big wake-up for many non-profits) – that while a membership-driven responsibility-consumption funding model does disintermediate the gatekeeper function of the big foundations, it also leaves something to be desired in terms of long-term sustainability.
Our current predicament illustrates this quite nicely. While the marginal value – and need – for charitable donations is never higher for non-profits than in times of trouble, the exact opposite is true for citizens. When you have a red-lining credit-card bill – credit limit decreasing every time you pay dow the outstanding balance, and minimum payments and penalties increasing – teamed with increasingly-unsustainable mortgage paymenets, rising food costs, and the threat or reality of unemployment, the decision to cut out feel-good charitable donations or buy enough dried beans for the week is not a tough one.
But our current predicament also illustrates the need for more good works, not fewer – for a mindset focused on tangible human capital rather than illusory financial capital. A societal focus on maximization of dollar-value has landed us where we are, and jsut scrapping by on the crap-end of that stick is not going to get us out. Not in any way we can be proud of, at any rate.
I will not pretend for a second that this is a silver-lining situation: real pain is here for many people, more is coming, and the bottom is not in sight, yet. But a simple fact that nearly all of us share is this: whether through involuntary un(der)employment or tighter budgets for entertainment and restaurants, most of us are going to have more free time on our hands. So: do something good with it. Build something – use whatever talents you have to bring something good into the world that wasn’t there before, to share it with people and to encourage others to do the same. It could be something big, like Rob suggests – a marketing campaign or a new good product – or something small, like making food for your friends.
But do something. One of the true virtues of times of disruptive change is that barriers to action and new ideas are much, much lower. When things are going fine, most people would just as soon let them be, but when the fundamental tenets of society are called into question on a daily basis: well, why not do things differently?
Postscript: It’s snowing again in Carrboro, and that doesn’t mean anything in particular, but there’s a nice picture from my back porch this morning.