The Nature of Non-profit Incubators
The Tango Center is a 5-year-old non-profit community center in downtown Eugene, Oregon. It's filled with dozens of projects, and with a schedule approaching six events a day and a thousand people a week, it's worth looking at what it took to incubate all these inventive, educational, popular, autonomous, self-funding, non-profit community projects.
There's an important distinction to keep in mind -- the incubator doesn't make the projects, it makes space for the projects. It provides opportunities, it organizes resources, and it makes suggestions. But any newly incubated project will only exist if the people doing the project really want it to succeed. [Note: a 'project' might be independent, and only renting the incubator's space, or it might be within the institutional umbrella].
If the project is suggested repeatedly by community members, then the incubator will try to organize it, by passing the suggestion to the larger community, over and over again, until it succeeds -- eventually, that means the right people, who really like the idea, or some variation on it, will volunteer to make sacrifices.
The infrastructure of mutual aid:
& systemic facilities
A successful incubator needs the right resources for new and existing projects to survive. A resource is typically built by one project during its gestation, sometimes with the help of other projects that would also benefit. Often, the resource is simply too large to be launched by projects in a start-up stage, so the incubator needs to bring the larger community together, to help out, "barn-raising" style.
Infrastructure consists of physical structure, regular volunteer work, regular staff work, organizational relationships etc. These are the real pieces of furniture, in the house of mutual aid.
At the Tango Center, we had to build all of this from scratch, or repair it, and maintain it: the dance floor, the ceiling restoration, the ever-growing sound system, the public Mac computer and its music library, the broadband connection and wifi, the public linux machine and printer, the office supplies, the whiteboards, the tables, the chairs, the couches, the bulletin boards, the website, the community-projects software that runs the website, the facebook group, the e-mail lists, the tool library, the materials room, storage, the lost & found, the lighting system, the security system, the copy machine, the fax machine, the bathrooms, the kitchen supplies, the microwave, the fridge, the water cooler, the mailing address and mailbox, the street windows and poster displays, the exhibition equipment, the music directors, the calendar manager, the event managers, the instructor pool, the organizer pool, the visiting instructors, the site manager, the general manager, our 8,000 ft space, our tax-exempt fiscal sponsorship, our ability to sponsor visas, our non-profit status, our legal and accounting help, our one-call center of dance opportunities, our advertising, our media relationships, our referral network, the decorations, the paintings, the poster collections, the murals, the sheet music collections, the piano, the music stands, clips, lights and mikes, the heating systems, the online "creative commons license" graphic, photo and video library, the live music digitizer, the tango store and preview system, etc, etc.
And none of this could have come about, were it not for the work that came before the incubator was even considered ...
Happily, almost all the incubator's projects benefit from improvements to the multiple levels of infrastructure. In fact, it is these "systemic facilities", which positively influence the whole, that are most likely to happen.
Even better -- the fact that the quantity of projects is increasing itself helps the whole, by offering diverse exciting opportunities to the community, holding its interest and swelling its numbers. The more the merrier.
How it happens
If you listen, you can hear the ideas bubble up.
Some are contentious -- especially when they threaten to replace something that's well-loved. But those tend to die off, and that's almost always for the best, probably. Improvements should be incremental, preserving, respecting and enhancing the good things that already exist.
Most good ideas develop momentum on their own. Sometimes, people with a reputation for doing something good, on the outside, want to do their work inside the center. More often, people develop a good reputation for fixing or improving things inside, and so it's easier to get community help for their next project.
Initiation happens in a number of ways, with people playing some combination of inventor, project evangelist, community advocate, problem solver, recruiter, facilitator, and worker. Usually everyone who wanted to do the project, works on it. If the incubator is over-staffed, or if the staff is too self-sacrificing, it often makes the mistake of doing all the projects that are suggested, rather than advertising the ideas and facilitating their exposure to the community talent pool and body politic.
How it fails
Projects fail to start, fail to maintain, or fail to finish, for so many reasons, that it's important, for the incubator, not to become too attached to any one project in particular. However -- keep records. The specific lessons can be very useful for the next generation.
If there is one thing that the incubator can help with, it is longevity. A project can succeed with the public, be loved by the community, and still die from attrition -- people move on.
The incubator staff needs to learn how to tap much larger institutions: governments, school, utilities, corporations, communities etc. In that way, it can create or collaborate with institutional programs that feed the incubator's projects for years. Maintaining these institutional relationships becomes one of the major roles an incubator can play in the long term.
Of course, the incubator itself is an institution, and its longevity needs regular attention, in the same way that its projects do. It needs to join in larger coalitions with other institutions to maintain viability on the larger scene.
The incubator's strength, however, lies in its community, and continued focus upon acting on its behalf, on behalf of all its people, in the broadest possible way, will ensure a long and exciting future for everyone involved.
Greg Bryant, January 15, 2008
New Strategies for Economic Relocalization
In the 1970's, we called it "import replacement". Local economies can be revived by it, neighborhoods too. It's a strategy that creates jobs, reduces consumption, increases local environmental awareness, and broadens the connection between people who work, and people who shop.
Relocalization is not protectionism. It's pride of place. It's humane. It makes sense. Of course we want to buy bread from that great independent baker down the block, rather than something produced in a factory.
Import replacement has always been the community alternative to the massive, wasteful economic development juggernaut of modern capitalism. Subsistence agriculture, small-scale manufacturing, appropriate technology ... these are the tools of community independence. When economies collapse, local production booms.
Whenever a community organizer is asked "but, what can we produce?" ... the first answer is always "what are you buying?" Everyday, people buy things their community could produce. If we nurture our production base, the skills and level of creativity in our community improves, and we can more easily weather difficult economic times and resource shortages.
Today, with increasing transportation costs and greater pressure to increase profits, relocalization has become increasing viable as a sustainable business strategy.
So, even in the US today, your community can beat import prices.
In the photo above, we see typical, inexpensive meal-in-a-box products found at a local natural food store in Eugene, Oregon. The box on the left is a relocalized "copy" of the one on the right. It is comparable in quality, and it's 30 cents cheaper. Because it doesn't need to travel as far.
"Economy of scale" is an abstraction that is usually applied incorrectly. Corporate monopolies and oligopolies often use it to justify their power and profits, even for products you could make more cheaply in your own house. Food is a perfect example -- there is no packaged food that comes close to the quality and low-cost of a homemade equivalent, and yet the premium on packaged food is astronomical. Is this "economy of scale"? The industry that mass-produces food would have us think so.
Places and products
In most of the world, the displacement of local production, along with the loss of economic independence, that has accelerated since the industrial revolution, has been accompanied by an increasing destruction of places of community.
Neighborhoods were replaced by "zones" for shopping, working, education, and residence. This has been especially true in the US since WW II. Since production was commodified, neighborhood coherence was less valued by planners, architects, developers, financiers, politicians etc. Awareness of this problem has improved in recent years, but the rate of neighborhood destruction, and conversion to mass-production, is still heady.
Given this, why not reverse both trends together? Why not relocalize products and recommunalize places?
One possibly useful tool is a "geographically-focussed incubation network". We're building one to revitalize downtown Eugene, Oregon.
Downtown Eugene was drained and destroyed by Urban Renewal and automobile economics over the past 40 years, and much of it is abandoned, or feels that way. A popular new nightlife district recently sprang to life, and there's now community interest in filling the surrounding empty spaces.
A recent measure to increase Urban Renewal spending (which was defeated) caused a rift among people focussed on downtown, but it was followed by a kind of increased energy and reconciliation, and an agreement that creative, grassroots solutions could help to fix the problems.
To spark such solutions, a citizens' group is hosting a series of "networking events" ... the intention is to bring together all levels of people who might help each other to actually do something positive downtown. This means an open, all-level gathering of potential partners, clientele, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizers, developers, investors etc. It means trying to get people to:
1. start a project
2. gather steam for it
3. figure out how to make it real
4. present it to the larger community
The biggest difficulty in launching a new venture, is visibility. How does the talent to relocalize, the desire to relocalize, etc. become visible to the community? Without a permanent exchange on which to announce these desires, potential cooperation becomes lost.
If a physical area is revitalized through creation of new local businesses and activities, then it's easy to be visible. But the same cannot be said of the desire to expand, to branch out, to cooperate, collaborate, and form flexible economic cooperative networks. These things are necessary for the survival of neighborhoods and local economies, as they are constantly assaulted by marketing attacks from outside corporate interests.
One solution is a team of people who constantly try to connect everyone. In a different age, a chamber of commerce would have played this role. But now the need for cooperation and fluidity is great, so we need new tools for those who are trying to repair their torn community economies.
One obvious place to do this, is the community memory of our age: the world wide web.
As far as we know, there is only one social networking tool that focusses on place-based economics. The software is known as urbanology, and it has been employed to assist incubation over the past two years at The Tango Center in Eugene. This April, the range of the Urbanology social software will extend to the downtown neighborhood surrounding the Tango Center, as part of the series of networking meetings. The progress of this grassroots networking initiative will be visible at downtowneugene.org. We hope that the results of this popular-based urban revitalization experiment can be used to boost any community-based initiative.
Greg Bryant, March 20, 2008
- Appropriate technology
- Community Supported Agriculture
- Community planning
Rain magazine has gone through many incarnations. In the seventies and eighties it was the magazine of appropriate technology, and gentle communal culture. In the late 80's, it was concerned with the running of non-profit organizations. In the 90's, we concentrated on the initiation of successful community projects.
Rain for the 21st century will be something a little different yet again. Its primary goal will be: to get closer to reality; the texture of life in specific places where good is happening. In this way, through observation and hard work, by building upon what already has life in it, by building what is yet needed, and by fixing what doesn't work, wonderful things will emerge. If this sounds a little vague, then hey, wait for the magazine.
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