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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

If I Had a Million Dollars: a Pitch to Patrons

    - Number Two (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery)

If you want to know what I'd do with a million bucks, you gotta read all the way through.  It's a small price to pay for that peek into my vision though, isn't it?

What does a million dollars mean to you?

It all depends on where you sit in the economic spectrum.  For the vast majority of Canadians, a million bucks is still a lot of money - enough to live a whole lifetime on.  For a thin wedge of the ultra-rich, it's subway change; they can drop a million on a piece of art or a vacation without batting an eye, because they've got lots more on hand.  They live in the billion-dollar realm.

But what does a million dollars really mean?  What's the value of wealth?  Wealth isn't about having more, per se - it's about exclusivity.  Fine clothes and cars cost more, but at the end of the day, they're clothes.  Vacations on beaches in Tahiti are fun and exotic, but really - they're beaches.  You can go to a beach in Canada, or in Florida, for less expense.  

The reason the super-rich buy super-expensive variations on what normal people can buy is because it sets them apart.  Wealth really is a country club mentality.

In addition to this, there's legacy.  It feels good to do good things for a cause or a community (it's an oxytocin thing), but there's also an element of carving one's name in fresh cement.  Hopsitals, museums and crisis centres have wings named after generous donors.  Sponsorship funds are named after the altruistic individuals who fronted the cash to make them happen.  People at all points on the economic spectrum love that stuff.

What is a a sustainable society worth to you?

What do Occupy and Davos have in common?  Both have said that our existing economic system is unsustainable and is leaving far too many people behind.  The difference, of course, is that while the Davos crowd says this in cherry-wood boardrooms over fine cognac while wearing expensive suits, the Occupy crowd was saying this on the street, everywhere.

The Canadian government has been pulling its hair out, trying to entice capital-hoarding corporations to invest more in technology, labour and other economically beneficial activity in Canada, without much luck.  Young Canadians are increasingly working several jobs to try and stay afloat, resulting in less time for building families or engaging in their communities.  

As the most skilled and most competitive youth go to where the money is, a lot of good Not For Profits are failing; they don't have the funding to attract the best fundraisers, policy-planners, organizers and advocates, meaning that a host of essential front-line service providers are atrophying.  

That, combined with the service silo-effect that results from highly competitive funding programs and a reduction in available capital means those front-line services (and the people who depend on them) are suffering.  Also - we're getting no closer to structural solutions.

This is key, because a growing number of social entrepreneurs are all about structural solutions.  These are thought-leaders, individuals with visions that extend beyond individual services or projects and tackle some of the meaty, underlying challenges we face as a society - poverty, civic engagement, sustainable healthcare, so on and so forth.

Thing is, these passionate, highly-skilled community builders aren't in it for the money.  Some of them choose not to get into the government grant-seeking game, realizing the exercise is largely about tailoring asks to narrowly-set parameters rather than building cross-sectoral solutions.  They want to think big and solve big and silo-based funding doesn't fit their vision.

Angel Investors?  How About Visionary Patrons?

Making a case for money is a costly enterprise - it requires highly detailed business plans, a tightening of message and focus and immutable targets and trajectories.  It doesn't allow for a lot of iterative failure, which is unfortunate, because iterative failure is key to sustainable success.

But there are people out there who've done all that - they've made cases, built projects, forged partnerships and delivered solutions on the small-to-medium scale that have literally changed communities.

Imagine, if you will, what one of these though-leading community builders could do with a million dollars.  

There would be no strings attached to this money - it would be entirely up to the individual to spend it wisely and openly, recording costs and activity through an open portal.  The general public could "like" the project, offer comments and promote what they thought was beneficial.  

Who would provide this million bucks?  Super-rich patrons looking for community-minded thought-leaders to support.  It'd be the same as investing in a hospital wing, or perhaps more like supporting the work of a Picasso or a Mozart.  They created brilliant works thanks in no small part to patronage support.

Why would super-rich patrons hand over a million bucks to complete strangers?  Because there's talent that needs support, because it would be gratifying to have their name attached to a community catalyst and because they can, while others can't.

What would the process be?  Less competitive and narrowly focused than a Dragon's Den or an American Idol.  It would function more like a crowd-sourcing campaign; catalysts seeking funding would write a letter, produce a video or create a piece of art or a project outline that lays out their vision and answers the basic question - what would you do with a million dollars?

It'd be as much about investing in a person and their approach as it would be a specific project.

Managing money isn't easy, of course - it's why so few people have so much of it.  To provide financial guidance and support, you'd want to have an agency these recipient community-builders could turn to for assistance.  

Can you think of any organization better suited to do this than MaRS?  They do a good job of the reverse (helping entrepreneurs crystallize their plans to maximize their changes for funding).  They have the right mandate and right accountability mechanisms already in place.  I know the talented support-people there would love the opportunity to help thought-leaders organize their spending even more than helping them find it.

Beyond that, the money would be a gift from wealthy patron to socially enterprising community builder.  
It requires a certain amount of trust, this; and certainly, some of that money would go to personal activity like paying bills, trips and hosting parties for peers.  Those are valuable expenses, though, when it comes to sustainable living and building community.  The catch and responsibility piece for the recipients would be the need to post expenses online, maintain a blog about their work and thoughts and absolutely, regular recognition of their sponsor.  That's only fair.

You'd also want to have a mechanism built in so that individuals who felt overwhelmed along the way could return money if they decide it's too much responsibility.  They could donate it to a list of charities supported by their patron, who would still end up winning.

It'd be a bit of a risk on the part of the patron, sure, but again, to them a million bucks is chump-change. I think we'd also find that the best patronage-recipients would have an eye towards sustainability, meaning they'd make damned sure whatever projects they begin or enterprises the start develop internal capacity to stay afloat.

So, I said I'd tell you what I'd do with a million bucks; here's a rough crack:

1)  Pay off some debts/a chunk of mortgage.

2)  Give myself a salary of $100,000 for three years; the intent of going six figures is to match the public salaries that get mentioned on Ontario's Sunshine List for comparative purposes.  I would then allocated $20,000 of that annually to charitable donations in the name of my patron.

3) That online community portal everyone talks about but nobody's investing in?  I'd do that.  The framework already exists, I'd just need to actualize and market it.  I've got an idea of how to monetize it without becoming beholden to funders; that would come in to play.

4) Related to this, I'd catalyze a proper, visually-designed asset-map of community players, resources and projects happening out there - first in the GTA, because I live here, but that model would provide a template investors could understand the benefit of.  Then we can expand from there.

5) I can't do all this on my own - I'd bring on a small team of dedicated staff (admin, outreach, coding, comms, etc.) but just as important, I'd proactively seek out and arrange project-based partnerships with individuals and organizations that have the same vision (essentially, put ourselves out of business by empowering individuals to internalize the skills and experience we bring to the table).

6) Sustainable funding - at this point I'd be looking to take money worries off my table permanently so I could spend more time creating sustainable projects elsewhere.  I have ideas on this front, but would be looking to partner with others who specialize in fundraising, sustainable social enterprise, etc.  Let's turn that million into something that will last forever and benefit a growing number of people

7) Specific projects that would be co-designed with communities and co-delivered with organizations like Shoppers Drugmart, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, the Canadian Training Institute, etc:

 - community educational programs and products including:

* Emergency Prepardeness (plus starter-kits for low-income families)

* Civic literacy courses co-designed with/offered within communities

* Design Thinking primers

* Help connect and empower the crop of community empowerment centres with a "teach a man to fish"/train-the-trainer mentality

* A series of short videos and info-graphic heavy products informing people (in various languages) about everything from how government works to paternal rights and responsibilities to the role of police and how to interact with them to how to start a business

* Free and well-promoted sessions and tools for public servants and political staff on social-emotional literacy, leadership, capacity building, program management, etc. I've already got the partners itching to do this and if it's free, online and positively recognized, it'd be impossible for the clay layer to stop the Peaceable Revolution

8) Existing partners and projects I'd support and help expand:

* Why Should I Care - under their brand or not, we really owe it to ourselves to make it as easy as possible to understand the issues and the decision-making process that shapes them. This would involve co-design with communities, university student groups, etc.

* Walk Along, Real Time Crisis, NotifEYE and others - I can see exactly how all of these great outreach, personal support and peer-support tools can be tied together into a seamless strategy that benefits the front line, the Emergency responders and ultimately, everyone.  It'd reduce costs, too.  If I could get in cover the costs of connectivity, I don't think anyone would object

* Open Government, Accessible Data - this is the future.  Let's get there faster.

9) Build Capacity, Build Bridges

- I'd take on a couple of amazing young people from low-income communities and help them in every way I could to reach their full potential.  I'd bring them to events to meet people they wouldn't otherwise meet, help them learn to navigate the confusing communication and "brand" protocols in political and corporte circles and nurture their own ideas towards development.  Ideally, it would come to a point where they wouldn't need me and would be in turn building bridges for their peers.  That's how society is supposed to work, isn't it?

10) I'd clean up this blog.  I get lots of positive comments on the content and generate a lot of conversation, but there's always comments about the format.  I've just never had the spare cash to do much about it.

Why would I undertake all of this?  Because I want to, because I know others want to see it happen and because someone has to take the bull by the horns.

More than this, though, here is my big motivation, the driving force between everything I do.  I have a family member who suffers from mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression.  For a long time (and sometimes even now) I have been really hard on this individual, frustrated with mood swings and isolationist tendencies that were harmful to others.  I took out my frustrating on them, directly.

Mental illness can be like a physical disability; it impedes one's ability to function in society.  We don't see it, though there's no physical manifestation like being in a wheelchair or walking with a cane. 

Mental illness expresses itself as behaviour, which we respond to as it as such.  It's a bit like giving sugar to a diabetic - without knowing it, when we stigmatize mental illness, we become part of the problem.  Realizing this was my come-to-consciousness moment; like a splash of cold water I realized that how I was responding to this loved one was part of what was making them sick.

When I realized this - when I dove in to the research and scaled upwards to see the scope of the problem - I made a promise that if I had to change the world to help my loved one be better again, that's exactly what I would do.  

But I can't help them unless I help everyone around them and that's something I can't do alone.  None of us can.  We can only do it together.

So am I worth investing a million bucks in?  That's for people with that kind of disposable income to decide.  As with any movement, the first stone to move will cause an avalanche, which is why we call social change movements.

All I can do is bring forward a vision and work as hard as I can to implement it.  The rest, dear reader, is up to you.

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