The Issues of Patronage and Seeking Patronage: A Thought Experiment in Response
This is a response to a thought experiment sent to me after writing an article called ‘Why Not To Chase Wealth and Status: A Community Project Perspective’. In it I was writing my rationale for not following a frequently offered piece of advice on how to develop the Ragged University as a project.
In short it was teasing out the various issues that I have, through experience and through my reasoning, with finding a wealthy patron to champion the free education project. It also intersects with a long running conversation which I have with my friend Grant about Machiavellian philosophies.
This conversation stemmed from his studies at Birkbeck where he had to answer the question ‘Was Machiavelli making an immoral defense of politics or an amoral defense of politics ?’
I argued that Machiavelli was making an immoral defense of politics whilst Grant argued that the correct answer was that Machiavelli was making an amoral defense. My reasoning runs something like: If we take Socrates’ view that evil is a result of ignorance, then Machiavelli’s teachings were ignorant, therefore they are bringing about evil which is immoral.
Part of what Machiavelli suggests is that to succeed you are advised to get a wealthy and powerful patron to champion your cause. I have been weighing up this seemingly pragmatic advice and its implications, both practically and ethically and see that in the long view it results in more issues than it solves (on both fronts).
The teachings in Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ advocates behaviours which reduce the humane relations of people setting them apart from accessing the greatest assets of our species, which come through those humane relations. The fact that he commends civic behaviours is beside the fact that he also commends inhumane behaviours. Just as putting something poisonous into a plate of food negates the meal as nutritional, incorporating ignorant and immoral behaviours negates the good one might do by undermining the foundations upon which the positive acts need to flourish as generative ones.
My friend Colin suggests that there is a question to be asked about what actually is and what ought to be. I respond to this as if we don’t act in the way we ought to then we change nothing for the better. Simply recreating a behaviour which creates the problem that brings about the behaviour – is ignoring the issues that are a problem and choosing to live with the devil you know.
The Thought Experiment
The above introduces the complexity I feel we need to think with when we are approaching the issues which surround getting patronage for something. Here is the thought experiment Brian sent me, I will be dealing with it bit by bit in this article:
‘Ok, thought experiment. You have argued that you need to keep Ragged away from the wealthy and powerful to maintain its integrity – a coherent argument. The thought experiment is this – a leading Scottish entrepreneur,……, gets in touch and says s/he is really impressed with the values and approach of Ragged and wants to give you a massive budget to scale up across Scotland. The catch is that you need to register as a charity and have a representative of ……. on the Board.
Now the representative is someone who you think is committed to the aims of Ragged (say it was me for example) but would obviously be taking directions from …….. How do you respond? You either take the deal and can do amazing work and help a lot of people or you turn it down, retain the integrity but there is an opportunity cost of all the people that could have been helped that now won’t be.’
Part one: You have argued that you need to keep Ragged away from the wealthy and powerful to maintain its integrity – a coherent argument
Hmmm, I suspect that I am not the writer I would like to be as this was not the underlying message which I had wanted to communicate in the article I previously wrote.
Chiefly what I was trying to get at was that by changing my behaviours to chase wealth and status I also bring about many problems through dehumanizing and derivatizing those lucky enough to have wealth and status. I also distance myself from humane behaviour as well as reconcile myself with a form of exploitation.
By shifting my attentions from doing community work to attempting to attain a proportion of time and money from the wealthy, not only do I undermine the real work of the community project but it diminishes the wealthy and powerful to less than the whole human being they are.
It is also unrealistic as a strategy – a fairytale; simply put, there are too few wealthy people, no real opportunity to communicate with them, and it is too costly trying to get their attentions.
All round we end up building and reinforcing a culture which is damaging to the humane relations which we need as a part of our environment and social-intellectual habitat. A good example is to think of the damage done to Hollywood film stars. It is not acceptable to me when people say ‘Film stars signed up for fame so should not be surprised when their privacy is invaded’. Everybody deserves their privacy and their wishes respected.
Just because someone has appeared in a form of entertainment it does not give license to the nasty invasions which go on by some people and some press. Everyone is equal in their rights, I am certain about that, and consideration about the personal lives of individuals should be foremost in a civilised society which hopes to collectively meet problems. No matter who people are, they should not be reduced to wealth and status.
A good example can be picked up on in the Radio programme ‘Kevin Bacon’s Game of Fame’ which follows Kevin Bacon as he arranges celebrity drop ins for charity events to help raise awareness for their cause. He seems like a nice guy, and recognises that he has had lucky breaks which have brought him fame and good fortune. But also we get a glimpse of the dark flip side.
Around 14 minutes into the programme you hear an account of how one woman was jubilant about it being Kevin Costner and had to have it explained to her that it was Kevin Bacon; another woman said ‘it’s Patrick Swayze’ to be told it’s Kevin Bacon, and she said ‘whatever’… to them it didnt matter who he was – what they were seeing was a fetishized reduced version of him. On a fundamental level this is impoverishment.
It continues with Craig Fass, one of the guys who created Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (the maths game), who says that when he got a glimpse of what Kevin’s life was like he realised the pressures of fame:
“It was everybody who walks in the room would say ‘Hey will you read my script, will you donate to this, will you come to our charity, will you do this, produce this’; everybody wanted something and his life is challenging and weird and everytime I am around him I am reminded how I don’t like that lifestyle; it is hard to watch – I don’t know how he does it. If that is the price you got to pay – I don’t know, I just don’t know, it was tough”
I would not go out with someone just for sex, I would not hang around with someone just because I wanted to use their car, I would not make friends with someone just because I wanted to be friends with someone they knew. By the same token why I would not chase wealth and status – because behaving in such a way would be damaging to both them and me.
Part two: The thought experiment is this – a leading Scottish entrepreneur,……., gets in touch and says s/he is really impressed with the values and approach of Ragged and wants to give you a massive budget to scale up across Scotland.
I would be delighted to meet with them; I would have the same time for them as I would for anyone. It is always pleasing to hear that someone likes what I have been doing in the community context and is thinking of contributing in some way. The first thing I would be bringing to mind is whether they had understood the vision of what I see as important to propagate in Scotland (and other places).
I have heard various interpretations of the Ragged University, not always in keeping with what I personally see it as. Of course, other interpretations are important, and this is why many and varied open informal education projects are needed. It is just with the Ragged University project which I do, I hold certain values and focus on certain nuances.
With the promises of money come a series of expectations, so I would have to come to a clear understanding about what those expectations were. Are they to fund the project in the same vein as it has started on or with a view to developing it into something different or some mixture of these views ?
It is so important to know who you are forming a relationship with – that they understand me, and I understand them. I would not want to take the money off someone and spend it in a way which was against their wishes. Thus an open and coherent dialogue would need to be happening from the outset. I would be looking for certain understandings such as an agreement that the lessons which have been learned in the field of International Development be taken on board.
For example, I had a very interesting conversation about community development with Sandy Watson who works at Scottish Enterprise, about Ernesto Sirolli. He said that the way I work reminds him of Sirolli’s work and that he was drafted in to do some entrepreneurial development work in Scotland some years before. Then Sandy said to me that the Scottish initiative did not work as they would have liked because they picked and chose from the lessons which Sirolli was relating as important; they had not grasped the nuances of what Sirolli had meant.
My chief concern comes from the fact that this kind of mis-identification goes on between funders and projects. In my experience, I have been too often told to tell my elevator story with the assurance that if I cannot express what I am doing in a sentence, then I don’t know what I am doing. Well, when you express things in a sentence then you are met with reactions such as- “you need to tell me more, there is not enough detail”
And quickly the time to communicate a complex thing in a simple way disappears, and if someone has no frame of reference for what is being presented they quiz deeper for more articulate expressions. Then you use more articulate expressions and are met with being told not to use jargon terms – i.e. language they are not already familiar with. When you simplify things the danger is that it is perceived to be simplistic; when you articulate things in detailed ways the danger is that it is perceived to be too complicated…
Further concerns which come with funders are the fetish and near cult status of S.M.A.R.T plans (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) and Prince 2 type management strategies. Let’s start with Specific – this is anathema to life when there are issues with category mistakes, as well as complex and emergent phenomena. The well worn quote from Peter Drucker “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems” seems to be lost on many flatpack management perspectives.
The idea of Specific is troubled in a community context as so many factors are constantly in motion. In a controlled corporate environment it may be more realistic to think you can plan a specific outcome, but in the messy real world, human based context of communities there are always multiple levels and factors moving on varying, inconstant trajectories.
If we look to to John Maynard Keynes the replicability of experimental results stems from the fact that the phenomena investigated must be “homogenous through time” – for example, the inverse square law of magnetism is always, demonstrably, an inverse square law. IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS IS JMK’S LAW
What we can also take from this is that planning something must require the plan being based upon phenomena which are ‘homogenous through time’, and herein lies the nub of the issue with planning in human systems. So I would be certainly looking for an appreciation of emergent phenomena and open planning from any funder.
Measurable – this has near cult status in our current paradigm and brings with it many problems that need examined. So many times I have encountered the mandate to measure things which are personal and private to people, and because of this drive for analysis it repels people and communities as they feel this data collection as a violation. Social network analysis is a prime offender.
Another chief issue which comes of measurement is that of perverse incentives becoming the key focus of a project. This has emerged as a plague on the third sector (and other places), particularly as each funder asks for different criteria, demands use of different language and different outcome measures which turns everything into a sort of surreal game for collecting coins.
Prof John Seddon says it well with “People do what you count, not necessarily what counts” – you can see him talk about this below in the video. What funding came to the Ragged University project would have to be sagely balanced between a retrospective analysis of work done, a personal involvement in witnessing the work from the funder along with the agency and trust coordinators need to advance/continue the work.
Cultural change is free from Mindfields College on Vimeo.
Attainable – This word can be abused by management to set aims low and simple when often in community based situations a larger complex challenge needs to be the guiding star. When programmed into an organisational context the danger is that the tricky is avoided and so sidestepped in terms of engagement. In the third sector we need to be asking about what happens to the cases and situations which involve multiple needs and do not fit the positivism of attainment or rhetoric of ‘success’.
An example of how ‘attainable’ can bring about problems is how schools and educational establishments have been forced into ugly league tables to publicly and financially pressure management structures to take on the ‘brightest and best’ resulting in an elite meritocracy where the young individuals who are closest to the attainments set out in targets are cherry picked. Those who are not as close to the levels of attainment which get recognised and awarded/rewarded get shunted from system to system to avoid negatively affecting the statistics of the school or organisation.
Regards to how a funder perceives what they would fund, I would be worried about them picking and choosing what they thought would be attainable without being on the frontlines themselves or having a commitment to what needs tackled in community and individual terms. The strings which come with funding often end up as tendrils of managing and dictating the project work from afar.
Realistic is a word which is wheeled out in organisational situations as easily as comfort food on a winter day. ‘Let’s be realistic’ covers a multitude of sins of dismissal or omission. It holds similar issues to bandying about the word attainable, and when reporting up ladders of funding or command and control structures, it can become shorthand for sticking to the things which win brownie points and avoiding the getting-hands-dirty tasks that have been circumvented because they are prickly problems.
Realistic can be as problematic as the aspirational fluff which can cloud the true intention to tackle what appear like insoluble problems today, but resolve with bold initiatives. With regards to funders I would be looking for the same kind of commitment as I have to not turning away from the intractable wicked problems which arise and are presented.
Timely – effective use of time is one thing and then pressing for attainment of a goal for an extrinsic task master is another. Setting a time frame is notoriously hard in many continuing tasks. The issues which come of funders wanting to achieve certain things in time frames are often mechanical, for as time goes on and as the unexpected happens, quality starts to get transformed into quantity.
Corners get cut to make a fit, opportunities get passed over to stick to a plan at all costs, dynamics get hampered in favour of just ploughing through work to meet a minimum goal. These are my worries about expectations of time planning for external eyes. There are a number of case studies showing the issues with time pressures coming from influences outside the team on the frontlines; not least that of the disaster which came about in NASA with the Columbia accident [Source: https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/organizational-behavior-disaster-5532].
If we get past the compulsive acronyms of S.M.A.R.T (ha ha ha) we are then served with a main course of Prince2 – a project management methodology which has become highly infectious as it has been promoted over the last 15 odd years by the UK Office of Government Commerce as a gold standard. The result is a drive to make everything in its image if it is to get ‘serious’ consideration.
Prince2 derives from an acronym of PRojects IN Controlled Environments which immediately starts to suggest the building of fragile systems operating in dynamic circumstances. The issue here, particularly, is that the values which have become ossified and ritualised have permeated all walks of life including those of the third sector and communities.
There is no such thing as a controlled environment; even the guts of big corporations are a milieu of mix and match interpretations of ‘Hu’s-on-first’ processes and staggering through hoops (it is just all too often that large organisations can consistently afford to malfunction or do things in a mediocre way).
This kind of heavy bureaucratisation and drive for statistical analyses seems to define so much of the relationship between funders and funding recipients in the UK. A nation of people all scrambling to put reasonably creative, fluid things into a series of components, roles, processes, subprocesses and types of artifacts.
It results in mindsets seeing change as something which has to be controlled rather than embraced and seized upon substituting self-organisation (and development through this) with another Gantt Chart which – like Santa – never technically delivers the goodies…
Im obviously having a bit of fun here, but the thing that I’m worried about is the prevailing paradigm imposing itself through knowing no better. Funders – as I have been scrupulously observing over the last six years with regards to organisations and individuals I have been watching (with admiration) – have a habit of colonizing the initiatives they fund. I can talk about this as I am not receiving any money from anywhere, but a great number of people are put in significant constraints ironically by receiving funding.
This results in situations where when funders ask for feedback the recipients avoid giving true feedback on the constraining or even damaging nature of the funders presence as it may piss someone off and cause loss of project resources.
All these things, all these cultural considerations would have to factor in were I to take money to develop Ragged University and in what way. Each relationship is unique to the actors – uniquely complex, uniquely weighted – like any context. An equivalent thought experiment might be like asking the question of a single person – do you want to get together with someone and live in a house with them ? 😉
Part Three: The catch is that you need to register as a charity and have a representative of ……. on the Board. Now the representative is someone who you think is committed to the aims of Ragged (say it was me for example) but would obviously be taking directions from …….. How do you respond?
So aside from the stuff I have ranted through above, yes I would be happy to register The Ragged Project as a charity. This has always been a desire of mine – to have it absolutely protected from becoming a commercial affair and ensure that it does not evolve into an organisation where people could pocket silly amounts of money for ‘serving the community’. There is something to be closely examined in the charity-industrial complex.
An issue I have is when I was told to create a board of trustees which were wealthy and influential. This advice was given to me by a nice bloke who was himself influential, and I dare say was not shy of a few bob. The thing is that this is not a practical reality – ibid, the article I previously wrote including points on time poverty, rarification of those with status, birds of a feather flocking together (homophily), etc…
I would be happy to have a representative of the funder working close as this shows me that there is a real connection with what is being done. In fact, this would be a comfort. I feel that there is too little involvement from funders, and that the less distance there is between the enterprise and the stakeholder, the fewer things can go wrong.
This is a principle discussed by the economist John Maynard Keynes examining the problems which arise around corporate behaviour and the distance between the owner and enterprise: “The divorce between ownership and the real responsibility of management is serious within a country, when, as a result of joint stock enterprise, ownership is broken up among innumerable individuals who buy their interest today and sell it tomorrow and lack altogether both knowledge and responsibility towards what they momentarily own” [John Maynard Keynes, “National Self-Sufficiency,” The Yale Review, Vol. 22, no. 4 (June 1933), pp. 755-769].
There is an analogy to be made here
My chief concern is that in the distance between the initiative and influence coming to the project, the important reciprocity of dialogue is lost. In this example it is you Brian, who is the theoretical representative and intermediary. And obviously your job would be to honor both parties in an appropriate way. Well, because it is you in this scenario I would have much greater confidence and likely say yes.
The issue would be my fears of the gradual metamorphosis of the principles becoming eroded over time, and the attempt to become a trademarked, enclosed as intellectual property or as some sort of franchise which line manages social situations… I would worry about being displaced myself from the community which I had taken part in.
The Ragged University IS my education; it IS my connection with the wider world and informal networks of people interested in sharing knowledge; it IS my opportunity to learn through doing and teaching; it is not just a project or initiative – it IS my life (as well as other people’s). Formalising the project would have to be done in a way which was sensitive to all the personal and interpersonal sensibilities which make it a real, living, breathing community.
Indeed, there will likely be people who have appropriate skillsets to help propagate a formal kind of organisation in more places, and I would certainly celebrate this and contribute to that happening. I would be looking for connections which come through the funder as a stakeholder where people who were motivated to learn would gain opportunities through the entrepreneurial settings – the Ragged Schools had a number of entrepreneural philanthropists involved (for example Thomas Cranfield – a tailor; or John Pounds – a cobbler).
In the best of circumstances the future of Ragged University organisationally transcends me, reaching way, way beyond my involvement – this said, I would always want a home within it as a community. This is an attempt to help build the world which I and so many people need as a social-intellectual habitat. I would be heart broken to see it become an initiative tainted with soft financialism.
Would the values stay as open door ? For example, the TedX group approached me and (lovely bunch which they were) said they wanted to do a bunch of events with me and Ragged; I said yes and explained the things which make Ragged Uni what it is.
They then said that they could not proceed because they were hide bound to charge for attendance to each event, even a nominal fee of £5. It is part of the franchise agreement. The issue I have – knowing about financial poverty – is that £5 is a LOT of money to many people and so this precludes a great number of individuals being involved. It also changes a social event to a type of professionalized one. Money has a propensity of changing dynamics profoundly.
All this considered, my friendship with you would be the factor which would encourage me to say yes
Epilogue: You either take the deal and can do amazing work and help a lot of people or you turn it down, retain the integrity but there is an opportunity cost of all the people that could have been helped that now won’t be
Well, I hope it is clear from the answering of your thought experiment that I would naturally be inclined to say yes and have a go at generating some trajectories. It would likely only be good for me and the initiative of putting on more events and generating more opportunities which create public value.
The non negotiables for me would be financialising the events, reducing the scope of the people who could be involved, narrowing the focus of the activities to a prescriptive list, overly formalising it with unhelpful bureaucracies, targeting only the low hanging fruit, back seat driving, target driven project management, influence from someone distant from the frontlines, and lack of communication.
What is most important in all of this is that harm is not done on the road to seeking to help. So many initiatives end up being part of the problem with the view of taking the compromise to get ahead. Certain things you cannot compromise and still hope for people to engage. Think of the sacred nature of the bond of trust and the behaviours that need to be engendered around them. Think of the nature of confidence and the environments people need to develop confidence…
I would rather do fewer things well and retain integrity with those people I do those fewer things well with, than do a million things in a mediocre way that ruins the rapport I have and need. Driving a car with your hands tied seems like a risky strategy to get home if I can walk. I hope this makes sense to other people. So Brian, what d’you think to my response ?