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From Bill – Dan Pallotta and Saving the World

April 23, 2014

danpEarlier this month, about 700 folks from the not-for-profit and profit worlds got together to listen to Dan Pallotta talk about – you know – stuff. Fundraising and how not-for-profits are supposed to be productive without paying people “serious” amounts of money; how a bank president may get 14 or 45 million dollars a year, and people howl if the CEO of a Company whose mission is eliminating hunger gets 1/50th of that. It’s true. Double Standard. Go Dan! Change the world; I can see it’s your goal. You have already, you can, I think you will, and I want to help.

Dan traces this double standard (if I understood his talk clearly) back to the Protestant ethic that is at the center of American Culture. I don’t know whose fault it is – the Dutch; I like blaming materialism on the Dutch – who were influenced by the Puritans. Dan put it on the Puritans. There’s this duality, says Dan, of wanting to make money, but believing making money as an end in itself is “evil,” so we’ll tithe to a Charity (read “not-for-profit”) which kind of spiritualizes or purifies our materialism. If you happen to be in a not-for-profit, you are, by association, supposed to be part of that “sanctified” culture that puts service first, not making money. If all of a sudden you, in your not-for-profit, want to try to “compete” with profit organizations and hire people with a competitive wage or spend money on advertising that can go toe to toe with, say, Coca Cola, then you are a BAD AGENT, not right for not-for-profit priorities.

You see, Foundations will penalize you if you try to spend money in a genuinely aggressive way towards what’s called “overhead” – anything beyond 25% of your overall budget is often considered “inefficient.” Of course, it’s important to remember there is a vein of crooked “charity organizations” using fundraising as a way of really funneling money into the pockets of the “crooks up front,” simply in the name of the poor – so this is supposed to help prevent that. And, of course, there does seem to be the possibility for a significant “disconnect.” At Touchstone, we go to schools to help teach literacy through our Young Playwrights program, which is supported by many generous Banks, Corporations, and Foundations. I simply can’t see driving up to the parking lot of any of these schools – where many of the students are on the school lunch program (they’re poor) – in a BMW. Something about those priorities, those judgments, wouldn’t seem right, moral. That would be an extreme situation, of course.

Part of me says: Dan, it’s not that the not-for-profits have got it wrong. It’s not that the priorities of the not-for-profits are askew as much as it is those of the for-profits. We shouldn’t be paying 45 million dollars a year to Judge Judy to be a clown on television. We shouldn’t be giving huge bonuses to Wall Street mavens that just hammered this country to the ground with risky financial ventures. We shouldn’t be obliterating the air waves and landscape with brilliantly conceived commercials that are littering our mind space and our visual and aural peace in the name of “freedom to sell.” You’re right: not-for-profits can’t compete because we do expect to be “moral,” but the object isn’t to be released from that expectation – remember the BMW in the parking lot – it’s to make the whole country more subject to that expectation.

For me the connecting thought is service. Not-for-profits are, in principle, mission led, not bottom-line led, and I suggest that that’s the bridge that can actually connect the two opposing worlds of “for-profit” and “not-for-profit”.

Going back to the original foundation of this duality – those pesky Puritans and their conflicted values – I don’t want to undermine the importance of the “moral” in our not-for-profit life OR our profit-work life, for that matter. I want to bring both worlds into balance by focusing on the idea that service can be the point of all these activities. The key thing, then, is how we measure excellence in service. It must have dimensions of qualities that are not primarily money based.

I don’t think making money is evil, let’s get that straight. I just don’t think “making money” is a very useful overriding goal, given our complete needs as humans. There’s something about work, any activity done to the best of one’s ability as an act of service for humanity, which strikes me as sacred. That means that there’s a sacred aspect to Apple Computer’s efforts to provide communication and data technology to the world. Why not? So does helping small businesses thrive or feeding a hungry child or building a bridge to help people cross a river. Even a garbage collector, if doing their job with their whole being, as an act of service, is engaged in what can be seen as the sacred work of serving humanity. There’s something holy about it. To think of it only as a money making operation demeans it and puts a less than perfect lens on our understanding of what’s going on.

I want to bring this view into the Profit Culture – and if successful, then the way businesses work will move towards the idea of being Mission-of-Service led, and not so much profit led. Priorities would shift away from financial results being the only thing that matters towards an understanding that sincere intentions are important, quality of process counts; it’s not just a question of whether something’s legal, but of whether or not it best serves the people.

This is fundamental. It means a shift in our culture, a shift in our existential view, a shift from competition towards cooperation – we would come together as a community as never before.

This is doable.

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