Thursday, August 04, 2005

The trouble with infrastructure

Today's New York Times has a depressing story about the state of nonprofit infrastructure. In his piece on the demise of America Coming Together, Glen Justice quotes one donor, Agnes Varis, as saying, "Everybody is ready to give money, but there are so many ideas.... Democrats always do that. They just spawn groups. It takes a while to figure out where to do it [give money]." What an absurd - yet real - problem - lots of willing supporters but no for them to make sense of the whole.

Without going into the politics of this, it is striking that a nonprofit network built in record time and for huge amounts of money just a few years ago, would be coming apart so soon. When the groups identified in the article shut down they will leave a hole to be filled from scratch for the next election.

This cycle plays out too often, in all realms - not just electoral politics. We need to deliberately build organizations and networks that can maintain relevance in the 'between' times so they can leap into action in times of crisis, opportunity, election, or recall (as the case may be). This lesson applies in all walks of civic life now, from the need for emergency responders to the potentially lifesaving powers of an always on, ever-accessible public communications network to the community vitality that comes from knowing your neighbors in good times lest you need them or they you in bad times.

Nonprofits, political and community organizers, and volunteers are the infrastructure of civic life. This is the trouble with infrastructure - we need to invest it when we would prefer not to think about it so we can rely on it when we need it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don’t know enough about the details of the ACT case, but if it had a very narrowly defined mission (win this election), perhaps it made sense for it to fold up its tents and go. There are, I assume, other NPOs in the swing states that can carry on the slow process of voter registration and education. And who knows, the next Democratic candidate might not be worthy of support (think of Zell Miller running against John McCain). I wish more failed and failing NPOs knew when to call it quits, and that others knew when to declare victory and get out. But I hear you about supporting infrastructure. I’m especially concerned about the infrastructure needs (internal and external) of small and medium-sized NPOs. Most foundations just don't get it about infrastructure, or get it but selfishly shirk their reponsibilities in this domain, leaving other foundations to pick up the slack.