Because we can or because we should?

July 02, 2012

Recently, something's come up on the NY Tech Meetup Board which has reminded me why I stepped up to lead the organization back in December of 2008, why I'm glad I stayed on as Executive Director and Board Member; it's also reminded me why I'm so glad we're lead by Jessica Lawrence, our Managing Director, who I know shares a lot of these ideals with me.

The lesson is not insight I came up with myself, but melded from working with and observing many great organizers. I'm sure I'm not the first to articulate it, but I don't know where else to point people so I'm sharing it here:

Organizations, like organisms, have natural tendencies. The classic work here, of course, is by Max Weber. My observation too is that a trait most organizations, especially non-profit organizations, have is a form of "manifest destiny" -- if we can go there, we should. If we can raise more money to support us going there, we should raise that money. Sit on the Board of any non-profit and you'll quickly find that at least half your attention, and the attention of the organization, is raising revenue so it can do "more."

And this has always been my fear for the NY Tech Meetup. When Scott and Dawn held the election back in 2008, most other candidates came up with long lists of new programs and new events our organization could do. I think my candidacy resonated with people because I very explicitly thought that, while perhaps would make the NY Tech Meetup more powerful, it would not make the NY tech ecosystem stronger. My fear then, and my enduring fear, is that the NY Tech Meetup take its existence for granted, and just do whatever it does because it feels it can, not because it inherently should.

It's a classic confusion of organizations: self preservation and promotion, no matter how great-sounding the organization's mission, is not directly mission consistent. You'd think that if you're doing great work, new power to do that work is inherently good, right?

The truth, however, is that expansion and growth is often counter to the mission at hand. In the case of the NY Tech Meetup, the example of this that I've always maintained is that we all want a stronger NY tech community -- that's why we love the organization and sit on its Board -- and an incredibly important ingredient for a healthy ecosystem is diversity and autonomy of leadership. That means more power distributed among a refreshing supply of leaders and groups is mission consistent. That almost never means more power for our organization, but we benefit by knowing our true mission succeeds.

This lesson is true for not-for-profits and even startups (I've given the startup piece of it here), and just in the world of tech community organizations, you don't have to look back very far to find traces of groups which have lost their importance to the community because they took for granted their own mandate and institutional existence and lost sight of the cause they supposedly cared about in the first place.

And so, this is the lesson I try to keep in mind as we make Board decisions at the NY Tech Meetup. It's hard, because the first logical thought for folks is that if we can do something we should do something, but doing what we should instead of what we can is why the NY Tech Meetup is nearing its 8 year birthday (in September!!) and is stronger, more relevant, growing faster and fulfilling its mission better than ever.

We have to keep asking, "What should we do?", not "What can we do?", if we don't want to fuck all that up.