503-673-3853

Work Buy Consume Die

Over on White Courtesy Telephone, there’s a new post on the Challenge of American Consumerism to Nonprofit Work.

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “Would my donors have more attention and money to give to my cause if they weren’t constantly buying new products and being distracted by new advertisements?”

That’s kind of a leading question, but my guess is yes.

When Dan Pallotta says in his book Uncharitable that nonprofits are competing with Nike, Coke and other big name brands for the attention of donors, he is correct. With our small nonprofit advertising budgets, there’s no way we can hope to compete, not even if we spent the entire agency budget on advertising.

So what is the solution?

How can we stop this consumerist avalanche, and redirect attention, when we are riding it ourselves as we blog from new computers and tweet from our smartphones and so on?

Keith Farnish, an environmentalist, writes in his book, “A Matter of Scale”

“The “happiness” that comes from holding a new piece of technical wizardry in your hands is something created by the system that needs you to feel happy in buying that piece of technical wizardry; because if you didn’t feel happy then you wouldn’t want to buy it. The sad fact is that there are few real rewards to be had from following the consumer dream, apart from the initial flush of excitement that raises our endorphin levels – the same hormones that make childbirth more bearable – and thus leave you with a chemically-induced sense of happiness or wellbeing. This then leads you to associate buying things (or taking part in other artificial “experiences” for that matter) with good times, so you do it again, and again, and again. If all this sounds like a circular argument, then you have spotted the exact point I am making – you, the consumer, are stuck in a positive feedback loop which is growing increasingly urgent: “Buy now, while stocks last!” “Hurry, closing down sale!” “Limited edition!” “Special offer!” And all the while the economy keeps growing, and the amount of carbon dioxide being thrown into the atmosphere keeps going up.”

How To Keep People Disconnected

One: Reward Us For Being Good Consumers
Two: Make Us Feel Good For Doing Trivial Things (greenwashing or pinkwashing, anyone?)
Three: Give Us Selected Freedom
Four: Pretend We Have A Choice
Five: Sell Us A Dream
Six: Exploit Our Trust
Seven: Lie To Us
Eight: Scare Us
Nine: Abuse Us
Ten: Give Us Hope

If you want more context and explanation around these ten basic ideas, click here.

Farnish suggests some radical things you can do to fight consumerism and disconnection. I am not saying that I advocate all of them, but it seems that the time has come to consider our options.

We can make change inside our organizations, and we also, I believe, need to reconsider our strategies for engaging donors and stakeholders outside the organization.

If we are actively soliciting, say, Coke to come into our schools so that we will get more money, can we ask ourselves, “What is the ethical trade-off?” If we are trying to get Boeing to sponsor our annual dinner, can we sit back and think, “What are the implications of our aligning ourselves with a weapons manufacturer?”

How can we give people hands-on experiences of connection with our cause? How can we help them get RE-CONNECTED with their purpose as it aligns with ours, which is to make the world a better place?

No matter what size your fundraising office, this is something we need to think about. It goes beyond an appeal letter. Beyond an email or a Facebook poke. It has to do with our basic yearning for our communities to grow strong, and our earth to be healthy. Aligning our values to our deepest desires, and from there, convincing people to take action.

No small task, with the millions of ways to distract ourselves and disconnect. But if we can even meet people where they are distracting themselves, (via videogames like SecondLife, and others) we might be able to make a dent in this mass distraction.

Do you have any ideas? Please leave a comment.