Starting a nonprofit organization appealed to my grandest visionary tendencies. To begin CommonAction I brought a sweeping notion that was inspired by what I’d started with The Freechild Project and SoundOut a few years earlier: “Let’s engage all young people everywhere in as much as meaningfully as we can!” Working from that place I engaged my board of directors in a wide-range of sweeping concepts, calling forward the grandest, most far-out ideas I could think of! And while that was entertaining, it was grossly inappropriate. Nonprofits must think about the details and practicalities that affect them everyday. This is the second of four posts reflecting on my experience of starting a formal nonprofit organization.
LESSON TWO: GET THE SMALL THINGS RIGHT It’s not just money and economic policies that are important to nonprofits. I have worked in more than one organization that sought to balance the books at the expense of good programs, as they focused solely on federal funding or corporate funding and developed programs that only appealed to those funders. Consequently the young people they serve are inherently compromised as the programs they participate in – often a major educating force in their lives – reflect the political or economical considerations of the funders that support them. For government agencies these efforts are primarily prevention and intervention programs that view “high risk” youth as incomplete or broken and in need of adultist activities that primarily perpetuate classist/racist/homophobic/imperialist agendas. For corporations these efforts reflect a consumerist agenda that largely situates low-income youth as servants to upper class citizens, demeaning and deflating the value of active citizenship and cultural norms.
In her classic Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks wrote that, “Yesterday I was thinking about the whole idea of genius and creative people, and the notion that if you create some magical art, somehow that exempts you from having to pay attention to the small things.” In this way the visionaries behind nonprofits have to be cautious as well, as the tendency to dream big, think big and do big often comes at the expense of the details. Lets see the forest and the trees.