The right blend: Minsky, Pinsky + Alinsky?

27 Apr

gapingvoid_wisdomIt’s very interesting working at both a type of organisation (a membership body / trade association) and also in a sector (social enterprise) that by their very nature tend to be lightning rods for debate, competing ideas, different expectations (from varied audiences). Trade associations and membership bodies obviously have lots of members of different types with different needs and differing thoughts on a whole range of topics and issues – regardless of best efforts, it is difficult to satisfy all of these at the same time, whether it is the CBI, the FSB, NCVO or our smaller selves at Social Enterprise UK. Social enterprise itself is where socialists meet capitalists, where co-operators meet competitors, and charity meets business – which leads to passionate, important debates about profits, ownership, intention, reporting and much more besides.

All of which poses some questions about what are the best or most successful ways to operate, both individually and organisationally, given that context. This is post-hoc rationalisation, but I think there might be a bit of a blend of things that achieves good results.

1) MINSKY – or the importance of common sense
I was listening to a podcast on the train recently, and it was a programme about an economist called Hyman Minsky (you can listen to the programme here) which discussed how he had largely been forgotten, but rediscovered in the wake of the financial crash – sometime after his death. There is lots of detail out there should you wish to know more about him + his theories (eg this BBC piece), but the crux of it is that he believed that the economic system was inherently unstable and that this could largely be explained by human behaviour at different stages of economic booms. As one economist said about him: “He was much more for getting your hands dirty in the real world. I think Minsky gave us the first sensible overview of capitalism ever, which had warts and all what capitalism is about.

This seems to me (in retrospect) to have been a bit of a thread for me over the last couple of years. First, trying to rely on common sense; second, trying to ensure we are getting our hands dirty rather than relying on assumptions (which has meant a lot more member interaction, and higher quality research); thirdly, being realistic and pragmatic in what can be achieved and what is possible. The mantra has been the oft-repeated ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ – we don’t always succeed on either front, but it’s been underpinning our work and approach.

2) PINSKY – or the importance of (individual) inspiration
Before I got into the disruptive, innovative, paradigm-shifting world of social enterprise (no, me neither), I worked at a small charity that made most of its money from signing publishing deals and selling books. The charity’s founder, an amazing man called Nicholas Albery, had a hundred ideas a day, one of which was about learning poetry by heart – both because it is good for the brain and for the heart, and also because you could be sponsored to do it (learn + recite) and raise money for other causes. This, in turn, led to a book (Poem for the Day) and a follow-up (the creatively-titled Poem for the Day Two) which I co-edited – the royalties still go to charity.

Recently, I found myself diving into some poetry books again, and came across one by Robert Pinsky (himself a pretty inspirational figure) called Samurai Song which speaks to me a bit of resilience, and individual self-reliance: “When I have no means fortune / Is my means. When I have / Nothing, death will be my fortune. // Need is my tactic, detachment / Is my strategy.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and read poetry as part of the working day, but that we all need those beacons of inspiration, either from our past or our present, who give us strength or encouragement to carry on; and who can provide insight that you don’t get in the twelfth meeting of the day or a policy consultation response.

3) ALINSKY – or the importance of community
Of course, if you just hang out on your own reading poetry and being inspired, you’re likely to become insufferable to yourself + others, and even less likely to achieve anything. If there’s one thing that’s important in my job and my organisation, it’s being able to build relationships and work in partnerships and sustain communities of interest.

This is where Saul Alinsky, the godfather of community organising, comes into it. He went through a brief period a couple of years ago when our sector paid attention to his work (largely when Citizens UK’s campaign work started breaking through, and when the government’s community organisers stuff kicked off). But he’s been less talked about recently. I still think his Rules for Radicals bears some reading, even if it is more rooted in direct political activism – after all, despite the pragmatism and realism that’s needed (see 1 above), we are still trying to change things and change the world around us.

I particularly like Rule 10: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” This feels to me entirely right: critique by all means, challenge and bust the myths, point out the imperfections…but have a possible answer or alternative ready too. This seems particularly appropriate for social enterprise, but we still see plenty from all sectors content to criticise without suggesting what they would do differently.

And what is underlying Alinsky is the belief that we are stronger together, as a movement or collective, than we are as individuals and individual organisations. Increasingly, I think all our best work (if most complex and sometimes slowest and most challenging) comes in partnership and through partnership.


That mix: of realism and sense; of inspiration and self-reliance; and of constructive partnerships. That’s the blend I’m aiming for at the moment.

[NB – Of course, the more cynical amongst you might just be thinking that I’ve chosen these three because they rhyme (with a nod to my previous poetry days), but you would be wrong. Besides, I could have included Gore Verbinski, David Wallechinsky and Natassja Kinski if it had just been about the rhymes. Next week, a post on William Hague, Martin McCague and Norman MacCaig for Tory cricketing poetry fans]

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