I went down to the city of New Orleans about a month ago in a quest to continue to explore how what I do for a living can make a difference for the world.
Don't worry, it wasn't all so serious.
New Orleans is a playground, and I definitely played with my little collection of familiar places and good heart connections. I love New Orleans because it's the kind of city that goes un-phased seeing someone riding down the street in a bicycle and covered entirely in silver paint, but screeches to a halt, mouths universally agape, when they see me going for my run in the morning. Granted, my running form is probably a sight to behold, but this city has an uncanny ability to simultaneously not grok me, and invite me into it's celebrations and ceremonies, anyhow.
I also study New Orleans. It is a city whose people have been galvanized by chaos, have stuck together, and survived. There is a well honed system in place that the citizens of New Orleans are steeped in. As a software and website developer who works primarily for the non-profit sector, I want to understand that system because it's effective. It perseveres, and it connects even in the face of chaos. If there is any gift I could give the organizations I have worked with, it would be those two wonder-twin super powers: perseverance and connectivity.
The kind of chaos I am talking about, by the way, was delivered only in small part by the storm. The much larger, calculated and consistent storms of petroleum extraction, pharmaceutical manufacture, and industrial scale agriculture has been generating chaos in New Orleans for a much longer time. New Orleans has been considered to be a loose port since it's inception, a harbor welcoming pirates and commerce alike. Sometimes its difficult to tell the two apart.
Especially today. Pirates are no longer the simple pillaging group of poorly-shaven, one-eyed marauders they were. They have cleaned up into multi-national corporations with a much larger breadth, and many more ways to silently encroach, and much, much more small print. We are all consumers.
It occurred to me when I was there in early June, that it is no coincidence that art and culture is something so universally celebrated in New Orleans. This seemly unproductive ability to carry on revelry in the face of devastation is a hallmark of any citizenship that has lost control of their ability to feel like they have a choice in matters that concern them deeply. Cancer alley and slavery have produced beautiful funeral marches, in the same way that Capoeira and belly dancing are both expressions of a martial art hidden inside the forms of music and dancing.
What I am saying is that the city of New Orleans knows how to grieve with a beautiful and tragic and many times joyful voice, and that they're still around to prove it. For my purposes, there are at least two lessons that can be gleaned from this: 1) that we connect most deeply with each other through creative expression, and 2) an infrastructure that connects, perseveres.
And I do not mean 'persevere' in the sense of what pretty music they make (although that is certainly part of it). I mean 'persevere' in the sense of Jerusalem burning, and getting rebuilt in many cases from the ground up. I mean it in the sense of the scattered tribes of Israel coming back together and figuring it out. The people of New Orleans are connected, and they came back together to make it happen come hell or high water. And, yes, they are singing about it.
Okay, remember that math class when you had to figure out - when if 'A' has a certain kind of a relationship to 'B', and 'B' has this other relationship to 'C', what 'A's relationship to 'C' is?
If you agree with my two statements above, you will naturally come to the conclusion, as I have, that technological infrastructures, social media, and collaboration tools that enable and encourage creativity and expression in collaboration will help preserve the communities they serve.
Right, but how does this apply to non-profit organizations or saving the Universe?
Stretch with me.
Technology used to be boring and boxy and painful, but it's getting sexier now.
This would be a good time, especially if you are an organization, to go ahead and jump on that sexy technological boat. After all, there is music and video here, as well as strange pictures of most of the people you know and most of the people they know doing funny things, and now those private whiticisms that before technology got sexy we would have saved for the break room can be communicated and read by yourself and countless (but no longer entirely faceless) others whether you are at your desk 'working' or out walking your dog. There are also things like instant messaging and chat rooms, and phone applications that enable you to respond to that urgent email from you boss from the convenience of the beach.
The job of an organization is to mobilize people to get work done. In the non-profit sector that goal looks like some version of saving the Universe. Whoever those people are and whatever they do together, they are going to do it better, smarter, quicker and with a bigger sense of accomplishment if they are enjoying themselves generally and feeling like a part of who they are is getting expressed in the work they are doing as a group.
Even though the word 'organizational database' is a bone shrinker for most people, a properly designed organizational information system mirrors the needs of the human system it supports in a way that should make most people tingle inside. Human systems (like organizations) are historically proven to persevere and thrive when they are self aware, connected, and expressive. Organizational infrastructures that encourage the individuals in them to express themselves into their work, services and products will carry the organization through peril and into thriving.
Practically what this means for an organization is online collaborative spaces for employees and committees. It means blogs and forums for expression that are also connected and connect with other social networks and media. It means automated administration of memberships, donations and programs so that that humans who are doing the work of the organization can pay attention to things like program design and development instead of mail merging. Can liberating your job from the prison of mail merge be anything but sexy?
Wonder-twin powers activate.