For-Profit, Non-Profit, and Scary Humor

Guest blogger Michael Jon Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for the Office of Communications of the National Academies and National Academies Press, has been at the interface between digital technologies and scholarly/academic publishing since the late 1980s.

Tim was kind enough to suggest that I expand on a longish comment I made on his recent post Stuff That Matters: Non-profit to For-profit.

Two threads wove my argument: first, I pushed back at his conventional framing of the non-profit vs. for-profit sectors. But what I think caught his attention most was my description of a project that’s trying to “find the funny” in the grinding, slo-motion collapse of our natural world.

An easy knee-slapper, eh?

I’ll get back to that second theme after some musings on non-profit vs. for-profit:

Tim: The heart of my message is that work on stuff that matters is a great hedge in down times: even if there isn’t a huge monetary payoff, you’ve done something that needs doing. And it’s certainly true that non-profit enterprises are often a good way to tackle hard problems that the marketplace doesn’t seem to be addressing.

But I want to make clear that I’m not just talking about charity work. I’m talking about the creation of real economic value. There are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs in solving hard problems, and in so doing creating new markets that can be exploited not just by themselves but by those that follow in their footsteps.

I certainly can’t disagree with most of that statement — but we need to do better at clarifying the roles and mission-driven goals underlying the nonprofit and the for-profit worlds, especially on “stuff that matters.”

Non-profits vs. For-profits

Tim comes to his benign perspective on the for-profit sector honestly: O’Reilly has historically been a responsible for-profit, building immense social value at the same time that it profits from its actions. But O’Reilly Media is a somewhat exceptional company.

On the main, the for-profit world has a different “maturation goal” than the non-profit world has, and it affects nearly every decision made in either kind of enterprise.

I heard my favorite summation of the distinction from Peter Likens at an Online Computer Library Center conference years ago. He was then President of the University of Arizona; I first used this quote more than a decade ago, in a presentation I gave entitled “Entrepreneurs of Social Value”:

“A for-profit’s mission is to create as much value for its stockholders as possible, within the constraints of society. The non-profit’s mission is to create as much value for society as possible, within the constraints of its money.

Of course there are, as Tim mentions, great overlaps betwixt the two, and the more that the for-profit world addresses the “stuff that matters,” the better. But quite frequently — at least in publishing, and online, and in the “public good” sector — when a for-profit takes advantage of that overlap, the pattern has been to decrease the public good.

Take a look at, for example, scientific publishing: in the post-WWII economy, most non-profit scientific journals were bought up by a handful of smart for-profit publishers who, over the following decades, began to ratchet up the prices far beyond what university libraries could afford, producing a dramatic shift in library resource use: an increasing share of nonprofit money went to for-profit scholarly publishing. One could argue that $50,000 a year is a fair price for a really important specialty journal, but it’s not an argument that fits into the “stuff that matters” or “social value” meme.

In that instance, smart, rapacious for-profit cherry-picking decreased the means that nonprofit publishers had to fund their other, less profitable work in the humanities, the social sciences, or even the sciences themselves.

A for-profit takeover of formerly nonprofit work could also describe what has happened with Blackwater, and the privatization of the military in general — higher costs, less accountability, and unintended consequences.

I’ve worked in nonprofit publishing for more than 20 years, and while I recognize the need for a risk-reward economy, some care needs to be taken to acknowledge that the “public good” rarely is profit-making. It can be sustainable, but is rarely super-profitable.

That said, over those 20+ years, I’ve always had side projects of some kind — “stuff that matters” projects that I hoped would end up being profitable, or potentially commercial ones that might be fabulously so.

My hoped-for goals for those projects have changed over time, and recently shifted drastically. For the last 18 months my side project has been with my oldest, bestest friend — a project which has changed my entire thinking on “what *really* matters,” and what “breakthroughs” we need in the next decade — from the Web 2.0 community, from myself, and from the world at large.

Yeah, it’s time for phase II of this guest blog: about trying to turn the onrushing apocalypses into laughter — or at least a knowing grin.

For more than a year, my friend Jim and I have been documenting and recording stories on the great unravelling of our livable world, and trying to build entertainment into it.

Climate chaos is a thread, just as is ocean acidification, and overfishing, and amphibian die-off, and pharma-laced water supplies, and giant dead zones, and the toxic plastic gumbo twice the size of Texas gyring in the Pacific. It’s the heavy metals we’ve been spewing willy-nilly out of coal plants, the persistent toxic runoff from our cities and farms, and the debt of poison we’re bequeathing to our children.

*These* are the problems that truly must be addressed. *These* are the problems that are “stuff that Really Matters.” Our little project is a stab at trying to nudge some momentum of awareness of these really serious issues.

We’ve been trying to work out ways of making the news entertaining, even funny; we’ve added a weekly Pre-Apocalypse News and Info Quiz, a collection of paper-free crossword puzzles, and we try to find a punchline to each story we record.

We do this because without entertainment, nobody wants to know about the jellyfish swarms, the orcas and other mammals sickening from eating salmon poisoned with PCBs and flame retardant, the collapse of little brown bats in the Northeast, and the precipitous loss of biomass from the oceans.

Tim lists a number of Things That Matter. Healthcare? Well, it’s important, just like Education. Reform of risk/reward regulation? Also important.

But they are problems centered in the world-as-it-seems-to-be, not the world-as-we’re-truly-abusing-it. They are among the problems to which I’d love to see non-profit *and* for-profit solutions. But they’re not the things that now seem, to Jim and me, “stuff that Really Matters.”

We’ve been doing the ApocaDocs project as part of our burden of responsibility, I suppose. And we, of course, hope to find some ways down the road to “profit” from it, in the sense of making it sustainable, rather than a continuing out-of-pocket donation to the greater good.

But it’s not because of a sense of “charity” that we’re doing it, nor do we have any hope of becoming, in Vonnegut’s great phrase, “fabulously well-to-do.” We’re doing it because it’s the stuff that truly matters, in the short term *and* the long.

I’ve been a rational guy all my life. These days, because I’m paying attention, my ambient state often approaches rational panic. The world’s tipping points are being reached, in ecosystem after ecosystem; most indicators of heat, or weather extremes, or persistent toxin buildup, or acidification are busting the charts of “faster than expected.” Our Wile E. Coyote legs are spinning really fast.

What do these two themes — non- and for-profit, and the collapse of the natural world — have in common?

I dearly hope that we see, in the next few years, a robustly expanded nonprofit sector addressing these problems, and a vaster volunteerism sector. Because the for-profit sector has few truly long-term interests, on the timescale of the unfolding disaster. (“Human survival is a bonus, but that’s twenty years out. What about next quarter’s report?”)

Further, the scale and scope of the impending collapse will require a special spirit of voluntarism and shared labor and sacrifice, something that’s painfully hard to monetize. There are strong currents within the open-source world and the participatory-Web world, that could make a river of “stuff that matters” that might (to stretch the metaphor) turn the tide.

If the geeks, and the passionate, and the smart, and the ones who are paying attention, could collectively work on (yeah, here it is:) recovering our world, then we might have a chance at a pleasant future world, rather than one of grinding desperation.

The lion’s share of that work will not be about profit, or even business. It will be about people’s participation in what really matters, because they get satisfaction from being part of the solution.

My friend and I made a decision, almost two years ago, to use most of our extra evenings to work on the many incarnations of the project, instead of watching reruns of The Daily Show or Lost. The project, especially as it evolved, was much more satisfying than being hypnotized.

Over time, our little project became, to our surprise, a deeply navigable bibliography of the slo-mo apocalypse. With punchlines, and with games. It evolved into something that is much more than its two authors — and fully justifies all those missed reruns of Lost.

I’ve very much admired Tim for ringing out the meme of “working on stuff that matters.” But I want to see the targets for “stuff that matters” be broadened, or perhaps, be made more fundamental: to include a recognition that there are Really Big Juicy Gnarly problems that Really Matter, that should drive a million important projects that don’t have a profit motive behind them — just the motive of long-term survival.

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  • Myra Nelson

    Excellent article. I just wish the for-profit sector would wake up to the idea of (a little less profit and little more social responsibility) was a good idea.

  • This is great and very stimulative to me. I am sure there must be practical ways to work on “stuff that matters” between For-profit and Non-profit for sustainability. Thanks for the excellent article. – akio

  • Anonymous

    What about “stuff that matters” *because* of for-profit degradation of of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness by people who cannot afford these luxuries? I’m sure there are many things like peace quiet food and shelter that ordinary folks would have if they could afford to keep the profits rolling. Let alone species survival.

  • Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.

  • Nathan

    “We do this because without entertainment, nobody wants to know about the jellyfish swarms, the orcas and other mammals sickening from eating salmon poisoned with PCBs and flame retardant, the collapse of little brown bats in the Northeast, and the precipitous loss of biomass from the oceans.”

    This approach kind of reminded me of this blog (from a more socially conservative perspective):

    Quite clever.

    Everything is indeed about keeping people’s attention these days. In my mind, the great question is: what are those truly valuable things that we *ought* to pay attention to? (not wait for someone to hook us)

  • Have you looked much at profit-donation businesses? They’re essentially a way to expose ideas to market forces while permitting the entrepreneurs to contractually limit the amount that they will take.

    Once I get the research and capital together I’m going to start a profit-donation business where the surpluses are redistributed through a crowdsource-controlled venture pool.

    Then other people to create similar businesses and the seed pool gets bigger. It creates a way for all the good spirited geeks on Slashdot to easily get funding for their world-improving ideas.

    (If nothing else, money for improving free software to the point that it is better than the commercial equivalents would be worth it.)

    My point is simply that part of the solution is not looking at the moral aspects of what should or should not be, but instead leveraging advancing technology to shape the world.

    Neither Marx nor Adam Smith lived in a world where we could take all the extra money, put it in a giant pot and let every single person vote on which ideas are the most worth it. We do.

    Imagine a world where consumers get an in-depth profile of every product they consider in the store on the 4G mobile device. They know if the profits are donated or if it was assembled in a Malaysian sweatshop.

    That’s a technology that can exist in five years. All it needs is a crowd of willing geeks (which exists) and the money to pay them (which doesn’t) (yet). ☺

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