Friday, July 10, 2009

Dancing to the Tune or to the Coin

I had a phone conversation with Susan Frank today (see my blog of Jan 22, 2009 for more about Susan). She's a student at Prescott College doing an independent study on intentional communities, and I'm her out-of-town mentor. Mostly that means I read her blog about her visits to communities and make comments about her musings and the video clips she's posting.

Today she told a story about an event she attended the previous weekend. It was focused on Green Living (as in ecological, not Martian) and she was put off by how the event had gotten big and out-of-control in an effort to be more financially successful. Examples: it was not just sponsored by Clif Bars, it was sponsored by Budweiser and Toyota, too. For that matter, Susan said that American Spirit Tobacco was a sponsor and they were offering free cigarettes to anyone willing to answer a survey—an offer sufficiently attractive that there was a never-ending queue outside their tent of folks waiting to take the survey. Hmm.

As she told her story, I was reminded of the event I had just attended, the national cohousing conference, June 24-28 in Seattle. This national organization depends mainly on profits from events to raise money and one of the ways they accomplished that this year was by hiring a professional auctioneer to run the benefit auction during the Saturday night banquet.

On the one hand, they met their objective, tripling profits from the Live Auction, and I believe Coho/US to be a solidly worthy cause. In part that was the result of more diligent solicitation and promotion. But they achieved higher profits by also making some other choices that were not so clearly beneficial. The pursuit of money can do that to you.

The Saturday night dinner was unquestionably the social highlight of the five-day conference. Historically, it's the one solid chance folks have to sit down in a leisurely way and have that conversation with an old acquiantance or a new friend that you didn't have time for around the coffee pot between workshop sessions. This time however, entrance to the room (and access to the open bar) was choked by the requirement that everyone attending be assigned a bidding number and paddle. The line was further slowed by everyone being encouraged to give their credit card information in case they bought anything at auction—thus trading inconvenience at the front end for smoother collection at the end.

Then, when the abbreviated milling time was cut short by the call to start dinner, it turned out that before the food was served the auctioneer solitcited contributions to a scholarship fund to attend next year's conference. That was followed immediately by a request that people donate (by raising their paddles) to have additional bottles of wine appear at each table. While in past years the Live Auction didn't begin until after dinner, this year the bidding started right away, and continued at a steady pace right through dinner without pause, effectively drowning out conversation. While the auctioneer was certainly entertaining, and expert at keeping the bidding rolling, most folks were too exhausted at the end to linger—either for dancing, or the chance to have their postponed conversations. It was an interesting choice to slant the whole evening toward making money, and I will be interested to hear how the feedback runs on this.

It was rather like the difference between watching a show on TV and participating in a no-talent show run by the participants. While b
oth can be entertaining, one is far more connecting than then other. Perhaps it's just a question of what you like to dance to. At what point does your pursuit of golden eggs place the life of the goose at risk?

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