It has always been an either/or proposition: Either you go into charity and give up money, or you go into business and give up meaning. It's mutually exclusive, or so the story goes. Even cutting-edge thinking operates from a binary context: It ties itself in knots trying to figure out how you can have both. But there is actually another, mind-bending, soul-satisfying dimension in which possibilities are endless and the choices aren't mutually exclusive. Access to that dimension, though, is restricted by an unwritten code that conspires to dramatically limit the options we perceive as available to us. It infects us with a tunnel vision that obscures our real passions and potential.
Its false tenets go something like this:
- You make a difference by what you do.
- You make a difference in the future.
- If you want to make a real difference, you work in the nonprofit sector.
- The impact you have is correlated to the financial sacrifice you are willing to make.
- You earn serious money by going into the for-profit sector.
- The for-profit sector consists primarily of banks, oil companies, and greedy, soul-sucking corporations.
- Nonprofit organizations have a duty to be frugal and keep overhead low, because that's what the public wants.
- You cannot change what the public wants.
The REAL laws of money and meaning go like this:
Law #1: You make a difference by who you are being. All of our focus is on the doing. We obsess over the latest models churned out by for-profits and nonprofits alike. The social enterprise classes at Harvard Business School study the things people are doing. When a foundation asks for an impact report, they mean the impact of the doing. It is all backwards. What we should be asking is who people are being. Are you being courageous? Are you being authentic? Honest? Rigorous? Unstoppable? Because that's what really makes a difference. You can run the largest NGO on the planet, and if you're being chicken-shit, then you've squandered the powerful position you've been given. It's who you are being that matters — whatever sector you're in.
Law #2: You make a difference now. "When I get my nonprofit management degree, that's when I can really start making a difference," we say to ourselves. "When I start my new nonprofit..." "When my new nonprofit gets to $10 million..." "When it gets to scale..." The difference we make is always off in the future. Like life. "Boy, when I graduate from college, that's when life will really begin." And then it's, "When I get married..." and on and on. But the future never arrives. Because it's always now. You make a difference by who you are being right now. It is all you will ever have. What difference can you make right now?
Law #3: You can make a difference in any and all sectors. Consider the overwhelming number of transformative innovations that have come from the for-profit sector. iPad apps, which allow, for instance, kids in rural India to learn about the human body in 3-D, dramatically improving their knowledge of anatomy. The refrigerated boxcar developed by Gustavus Swift for his meat-packing company, which coincidentally significantly reduced food-borne illness. Canning, invented by the French chef Nicolas Appert in 1810, which greatly increased the availability of food. The assembly line, which made workers eight times more productive. The automobile itself. None of these seismic transformations in the quality of modern life was accomplished inside a nonprofit tax status. The notion that you can have a real impact on the life of other human beings only in a nonprofit context is a great hallucination.
Law #4: There is no correlation between personal financial sacrifice and impact. Larry Page's work has made a massive difference in the world — and he is worth a gazillion dollars. Each of us is probably aware of someone who makes tremendous financial sacrifice and whines about it all day long and has zero impact in the world. There is no reliable correlation between the financial sacrifice a person makes and the impact they have in the world.
Law #5: You make serious money by pursuing your dreams. Barack Obama is a wealthy man. Bruce Springsteen is a man whose life's work is about social justice and his net worth is estimated at over $200 million. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, which is credited with advancing all manner of social movements, is estimated to be worth close to a billion dollars. Each of these people have made a huge difference and a huge amount of money. All by staying true to their dreams.
Law #6: The for-profit sector is a place where dreams come true and the for-profit sector creates value. Even banks make a big difference. Who do we think finances the construction of all of our art museums, hospitals, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters?
Law #7: Nonprofit organizations have a duty to do whatever will fulfill their missions. If you're keeping your overhead low and that's keeping you from making good on your mission, you're violating your fiduciary duty to your donors. Going into the nonprofit sector does not have to be a prison sentence that suffocates your potential. It is an invitation to be brave enough to pursue your dreams--to be a true radical.
Law #8: The public does not always know what's best, and you can dramatically transform what it wants. I just have one thing to say: "Pork, the other white meat." If pork producers can change the way Americans think about pork, we can change the way Americans think about charity.
There, you're free. Go do the thing that really turns you on, whatever the sector. Go be the person you really want to be. Do it now. Your possibilities are endless.