Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Evening With Michael Seltzer

So I hit up the Denver Young Nonprofit Professionals Network tonight for a little speech and Q&A with Michael Seltzer. He's a nonprofit consultant, awesome dude, and the author of Securing Your Organization's Future. You can find a better bio of Seltzer here. We had some light refreshments and then gathered in the studio at Denver Open Media. Since there were only about 15 of us, Michael had us all pull our chairs into a tight little circle, which was just super.

He talked about how his life in the nonprofit world began with a trip to Cameroon under the precursor program to our Peace Corps. From there he bounced around to a handful of different places, gaining valuable experience in a wide variety of situations and cultural contexts. He was coming of age politically during the late 60s. It was, as we know, a crazy time full of hope and cooperation. His contention was that the social movements of the 1960s were based less on organizations and more on the Movement qua Movement.

Many nonprofit organizations precipitated out of these social movements, but as they did, they lost the "vision." Suddenly the game was about promoting the organizations themselves. Granted, they had to do this to survive, but a mentality of competition came to rule the sector. And so it goes.

Nowadays, as Seltzer noted in his talk, it seems that we are edging back toward being parts of movements as opposed to solitary organizations. This is not simply a matter of playing on the same team, but perhaps an entirely new organizational structure. It's all quite a grand vision, and we talked as a group about how technology is changing the ways in which we can work at this sort of retro-collaboration. Sure, the idea of macro-movements is back in force because it has to be, but also because it can - the spirit of the 1960s has broken upon the shore of the internet and social media.

We also spoke about "sector-jumpers," those people from, say, the corporate world who are finding their existence threatened by the market. They will head for an equally precarious, but far more rewarding place, like the nonprofit sector. Seltzer talked about seeing the explosive growth of "social entrepreneurship clubs" in major MBA programs - these people want to help.

After someone referred to nonprofits as the "third sector," Michael said, "No. Nonprofits are the first sector. In 1636, a minister donated his library and some money. The organization became the first corporation in the United States, and was named after the man. That man was John Harvard." Nonprofits have been an important part of the fabric of America for some time, and Seltzer noted that, especially during this past election, Americans voted not only through the ballot box, but through their checkbooks and their volunteer hours. He sees our democracy as relying in large part upon the continued activity of Americans in the nonprofit sector. As he noted - 80% of us either donate or volunteer. We can't get those kinds of numbers even for small-town elections.

One of the participants expressed confusion about the use of technology to build the aforementioned new organization structure of Movements. She wasn't a technophobe or anything, she simply didn't know how being able to communicate digitally (ubiquitously) was going to change anything. Seltzer asked us what we thought about that, so I broke into the song-and-dance about nonprofits being on the cutting edge of communication, collaboration, and social networking/media - not so much because it's good for us, but because we have to to survive.

Along with that, someone mentioned the seeming loss of depth in our connections for breadth in our connections, but pointed out that we therefore have a responsibility to "drill down into that breadth in whatever ways we can," and in essence, "humanize these new technologies." Seltzer agreed, noting that we are still very much about face-to-face interactions. We like touch.

The whole evening was very inspiring, really. He noted that we definitely need to think of ourselves as skilled people, with cultural competency being a chief proficiency. The social movements of the 1960s were anti-professional. Nowadays, we are the professionals. We have opportunities to build great big things with lots and lots of people. New Movements. Old Movements with new names. Lots of things.

It's going to be a grand old time.

, , ,