nonprofits, startups, and the middle place

I work for a large nonprofit. I do evaluation, meaning I document the effects of grants for those who provide them. Working for a nonprofit is part of my overall life strategy of striving not to actively harm the world. Maybe I do some good along the way. It’s more fulfilling than most things I could do forty hours a week; I cover up some things I dislike about myself in the warm blanket of sanctimony that comes from serving a good cause. Plus, I get paid.

Because I also live so much online, and because I am marrying a person who works in technology, we often wind up talking about where our fields intersect. There’s been a recent trend of articles examining the strand of selfishness that runs through Silicon Valley, which has brought those conversations to a peak of intensity. There was that New Yorker piece to which I reacted strongly on Tumblr already. There was this rather polemical bit on the “unexotic underclass” as a new potential audience for tech: folks we might call “underserved” in my line of work. There was Alex Payne’s “Letter to a Young Programmer”, which is a shade more cynical than I expected from my associations between its title and Rilke. A detail jumps out from that letter: they wanted to streamline charitable donations in Simple, but their funders told them “let’s not waste time on that stuff; we’re here to make money.” Aren’t there any higher values than stacking cash? Making cool features your customers would love, for one?

I should say that I don’t want to tar all of startup culture with the broad and nasty brush that I sort of had in hand when I wrote that first Tumblr rant. A friend who works for Twitter provided the counterpoint that the media’s image of startup culture isn’t the whole story. “It’s taxing to keep seeing hate on it,” he wrote to me: “there are some absurdities here, but there are a lot who are inappropriately pegged. Stereotypes!”

Fair enough. I operate on the principle that everyone is trying their best in life, unless amply proven otherwise. I don’t think there’s any malice inherent in trying to make a living, whether you’re doing it with VC funding, foundation grants, or whatever other pot of money.

In conversation, Nick and I often use as shorthand “how internet” something is: how much it fits the medium. Nick is very internet: snarky, absurd, quick to react to things, with a prolific GIF vocabulary. I’m probably medium internet: sarcastic, aware, present in the stream. Nonprofit culture, from all indications I’ve seen in my six-year-plus career, is not very internet. There’s a lot of sincerity, hard work, and scrambling for the money to stay afloat. There’s an earnest and powerful yearning to build community and make the world a better place. But there are also a lot of missed opportunities to use the internet in the service of this stuff.

It’s partly a generational divide between the people leading nonprofits and those who grew up online, but it’s also partly the same problem I hollered about after XOXO. What are we doing with the tools? And what are the tools doing for us? How do we bridge a gulf between money-driven startup culture and the service-driven (and perpetually underfunded) nonprofit sector? You can’t ”move fast and break things” when you have constituents and funders relying on you not to fail, and to document your progress at every step.

There are models out there for hybridizing nonprofits and moneymaking. Some of them seem pretty compelling, like B-corps and social impact bonds. But I worry less about organizations and more about the people that work in them. Whether you’re hustling for a nonprofit or for a startup, it seems the people who are the most successful are also the most single-minded. Work and play overlap more often than not; they’re always researching, always user testing, always looking for the next great program model. All-night binges of coding or grantwriting look like acts of heroism, rather than lost time that you could’ve had with friends or family or a good book. I worry we’re shrinking ourselves into filter bubbles, never learning from ideas far afield from what we do.

Several months ago I went out for drinks with a friend who works at another nonprofit. We talked about job tradeoffs, about compromises: how we’re making less money than we might be getting in the private sector, serving causes that are only partly our own. We made a Venn diagram:

our venn diagram

That center – where internet culture, creativity, and social justice intersect – is where we want to live, but neither of us knows how there’d be money in it. And that’s the real frustration: it seems like startup culture contains this vast pit of money and talent going towards selling ads and mining data. How do you get to the middle place? How do you build a life and thrive there? Thinking larger, how do we make a culture that values communities and their human needs over the next big thing? (I’m counting creativity among these human needs: I believe in the arts as an external immune system and a vector for transformative change.)

Because isn’t the real root issue that there’s no common denominator of what we value beyond how much money we make? There’s no atomic unit of satisfaction, or of social good, in the dark crevasse of late capitalism. There’s no winning at doing charity.

I know my friend and I aren’t the only ones looking for the middle place. I read a series of posts on Feministing (intro, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) about the genesis of Hollaback, which helps women create stories and support each other in the fight against street harassment. This couldn’t happen without online tools. Hollaback is working somewhere in the middle place. We’re partway there with Ag47, the arts mentorship group of which I’m the producer: although our workshops are resolutely and gloriously analog, I’m thankful that I can keep up with this group on Facebook and Google Talk, and our website and Twitter help show our work to the world.

I know I’m missing things, though. I want to see more stuff that punctures my filter bubbles, that doesn’t fit neatly with what I expect from the field I work in or the tech stuff I know. And I want this for everyone all the time. I want a world where the broke-ass artists and the super-smart tech people and the feminists and the old-school activists get to learn from each other and make more interesting mistakes. And then we learn from them and do better by each other. And so on into the glorious future.

Tell me what you know of in the middle place. Tell me what you want to start.