The Nonprofiteer has been rolling her eyes and wrinkling her nose and generally contorting her facial muscles at the notion that there’s some sort of continuing life for the “Obama Nation,” those energies and relationships forged in the Obama campaign. Sure, she thought: show me an equally remarkable candidate for an equally important political office and I’ll show you a continuing movement in his support.
Then she hosted a party for her fellow volunteers on the campaign, a “nation” whose most liberal census would report about 110 souls, and a funny thing happened. First, more than 40 of them showed up on a bitter cold school night at the home of a relative stranger; then, they proved to have so much to say to one another based only on the common ground of a defunct campaign that a party scheduled to run for 2-1/2 hours went for 5; and, finally, when it was all over, the Nonprofiteer and her guests could each think of a dozen or so whom they’d like to see again and know still better.
This may prove nothing more than that Ann Landers was right: the most efficient way to meet simpatico people and make new friends is to volunteer doing something you enjoy, as by definition everyone you encounter in that context enjoys it, too. But though there was a lot of enthusiasm for the impending Administration (as brilliantly embodied by the guest who contributed fortune cookies to the potluck feast, saying “Our fortunes are changing for the better!”), there was relatively little interest in politics for its own sake (which raises an interesting question: is there such a thing?). A number of guests politely agreed with casually-expressed desires to replace Chicago’s Mayor For Life, but no one seemed to be looking either for another campaign or for the political spoils of this one. Rather, people were saying to one another, “That was a great experience” and “I don’t know what to do next” and “You, neither?”
So what are all these people looking for, and how important is it that we as a society help them find it?
- Was it the chance to be together? With all due respect to Professor Putnam, for this group of people social connectedness is a fringe benefit of participation rather than its product or its compensation. Most of these volunteers are already embedded in social networks: it took a month to find a date for the gathering that didn’t conflict with pre-existing commitments of its half-dozen planners.
- Was it the chance to exercise skills? There were a lot of skills represented in that room, but the talk wasn’t of skills; it was of service: “Maybe we’re going to be those old people you read about who wind up in the Peace Corps.”
- Was it the chance to make a difference? Well, yes, but one can make a difference in so many ways that the notion doesn’t help shape what to offer people who are on fire with an unnamed passion.
For the Nonprofiteer herself, it was exciting and gratifying to be back in a room with people who regarded her as a leader; but that, too, is a surrogate for something else–for deeply satisfying participation in a crucially important project. So she still doesn’t know what to do next.
- DON’T start a nonprofit just ’cause you have the troops. There are almost certainly plenty. If it turns out to be important for this particular band of brothers and sisters to stay together, let’s figure out a way to get swallowed whole by an existing Leviathan.
- MAYBE use the existing Obama network to connect individuals or clusters to existing nonprofits, for specific projects or Board service. We’ve learned to trust each other, we know each other’s abilities, and we’ve been through a war; that’s not nothin’. But could it be “somethin'” to the nonprofit world–other than disruptive?