Lessons Of The Dancing Guy, When To Lead And When To Follow

Today I was reminded of the Derek Sivers TED talk “How To Start A Movement” in which he analyzes a popular YouTube video of a guy dancing on a hillside at music festival. What reminded me of this video, and its lessons was an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Calling All Boomers: Don’t Start More Nonprofits”

According to the piece, a recently release study revealed “that 12 million baby boomers want to start their own nonprofit or socially oriented business over the next decade.” I think we can all agree that it is wonderful that so many people are moved to do good.  But as the author, Mark Rosenman, suggests, is this really the best way for them to affect change?

We have an addiction to the new and shiny — cars, housing, mobile handsets, tablets, laptop computers or cameras — this addiction, like any, follows a predictable path until the new and shinny thing does provide the thrill or satisfaction that it once did. It’s the story of America over the past 25 years, but it cannot go on forever. To quote Bill Maher, “All bubbles burst.” 

The notion that what is needed to solve some social ill, or intractable problem is a new nonprofit organization or social venture business flows from our addiction to new.  We may assume that if organizations have been around for so long and has not solved the problem, they must be incapable of solving the problem.  The presence of unsolved problems may, to some, be evidence of the ineffectiveness of existing organizations working on the problem thus leading to the conclusion that what is needed are new organizations.

As Rosenman argues, this is a kind of narcism. New organizations require significant resources to get started. These start up costs could instead support existing organizations. The energy of the people involved in starting new organizations could instead go to revitalizing and reenergizing existing organizations.

This is where I come back to the dancing guy (and if you haven’t watched the video yet, you might want to, and then come back to this article).  He’s out there doing his own thing, dancing all crazy. As Sivers outlines, it is not until one or two followers join him that the avalanche of dancers follows and he has started a full fledged movement.

In business it may be fine to try and start a new enterprise to do something just a little bit better than the existing businesses out there.  But in the nonprofit sector — the public sector — when working for the greater public good, I think we all have a responsibility to amplify the work of existing organizations before splintering support by creating new ones. The socially responsible thing is to do your due diligence and if there is another organization working on the same thing you are interested in meet with them and see how you can join them, dancing on the side of the hill.

Working together and getting beyond personal or organization ego is not easy, but perhaps the #occupy movement has lessons to teach in this regard. By getting together — face-to-face — and taking the time to get to know each other and really listen and share, these ambitious do-gooder baby boomers will learn that they can achieve their goals by working with, and helping to improve existing organizations.