I wonder if, like me, you sometimes feel this modern world is going just too fast? Perhaps, as I am, you’re increasingly coming to doubt that the many technological advances of our times are actually making our lives easier and better, like they promised they would? By any chance, does your daily email mountain also seem to you ever harder to climb and less interesting to boot, as mine does? Or does it trouble you, as it does me, that while you can now be reached by telephone pretty much wherever you happen to be, this additional intrusion hasn’t really made you more effective, more efficient and, more importantly, happier, as it should have done?
If any of the above doubts apply, you’re not alone.
It seems there’s no escape, as yet. But a means may be coming. Fundraisers who feel particularly cursed by the go-faster society should read a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré (Orion Press 2004). Carl has set himself on a mission against the cult of speed. He promotes what he claims is rapidly becoming a worldwide movement: the campaign for slow, which advocates among other things slow food, a better life/work balance, more green spaces, pedestrian-only zones, areas devoted to calm and tranquillity, and taking time to read proper bedtime stories to your kids. Carl thinks the trend towards calm will catch on – slowly (some years back the slow food campaign claimed 78,000 members in 50 countries).
Fundraisers could find advantage in the progress paradox
But is the rush of modern life a reality or just an illusion, a media-fuelled misunderstanding? The truth is we really don’t need more time. Modern men and women enjoy more leisure time these days than ever before, yet somehow we imagine the opposite. Something in our modern lives appears to compel us to cram in as much experience and consumption as possible, in the misguided notion that this is how we will add meaning and fulfilment to our increasingly empty lives.
Does this possible misconception, perhaps, present just the kind of opportunity that today’s fundraisers should be grabbing eagerly with both hands?
Fundraisers as much as anyone operate in a fast-changing business and social environment. Some of the consequences of this are surprising and will open up opportunities hitherto not even guessed at for those who would fundraise. Massive upheavals that we are already starting to see may lead to as yet undreamed-of chances for the nonprofit sector. But like all opportunities we have to spot them in time and exploit them to the full.
The progress paradox, I submit, is one of these.
Progress might not be making our species happier. These days our society’s unease may not be coming as it traditionally has, from endemic poverty, from our people having to go without, so much as from our prosperity, our being increasingly able to go ‘with’. General affluence, it appears, does not automatically arrive in the company of general contentment. It’s in the most affluent of societies that one finds the longest queues outside the psychiatrists’ doors. Affluent people in a rush are most likely to head that queue. But the risk to these time-poor rich people comes not from fundraisers, in fact quite the reverse. Fundraisers might be just the people to solve the biggest of their perceived problems.
According to Robert Samuelson writing in Newsweek, as living standards improve people don’t necessarily feel the benefits. Although folk like us now averagely start work later in life, are retiring earlier (well, some still are) and in reality have oodles more time than our ancestors, we persist in feeling time poor. Obesity is as large a health risk for the affluent as going hungry is for the poor and, like poverty in the developing world, it’s growing in our society. Instead of more money making us happier, griping apparently rises with income.
It’s a world turned, apparently, on its head.
It seems more and more people find that with increasing affluence comes a decreasing sense of fulfilment. Maybe as we cease to need to worry about basic survival, other issues of purpose and fulfilment crowd in on us.
Look! We offer meaning…
Could this be an opportunity for the likes of us, for fundraisers? I think so; it could be a great one. Given the colourful character of our causes and the urgent nature of the needs we meet, who could offer fulfilment and meaning in life for those without it, better than fundraisers? Perhaps in this new progress paradigm, nonprofits can expand their role. If fulfilment is moving up people’s hierarchies of basic needs, where better could they turn to find what’s lacking in their life, than the nonprofit sector? If significant sections of society face a problem that stems from their growing affluence, maybe we’re just the folk to relieve them of it. And if time too is in short supply then we can make everything very easy for them as well as appealing and interesting. If the meaning of life is becoming increasingly incomprehensible, cannot fundraisers and the causes they work for help many people find the answers they seek?
Think about it. What could be more appropriate for affluent people in a hurry than fundraisers, who can make it easy for people to find useful, worthwhile and interesting homes for their excess money without any pressure, fuss, hassle, or onerous time commitment? We could soon build for ourselves a reputation as the people to turn to when the pressures of modern affluence become too much to bear.
This might be a better role for the fundraiser than that which he or she currently enjoys – a role as provider of fulfilment for busy people on the move.
Postscript – on doing without
As I explained at the outset of this piece I’m a little disillusioned with the so-called technological advances of recent years. But the wonder of modern gadgetry and gimmickry is how good you feel when you do without them. This reminds me of the story of the rabbi and the poor man who lived in one small room with his wife and three children.
‘I can’t stand it!’ wailed the man. ‘What can I do?’ The rabbi told him to get a dog. The dog barked at the children and messed up the floor. Then the rabbi suggested he get some hens. The dog chased the hens, which frightened the baby. ‘Get a goat’ insisted the rabbi. And so on, until the rabbi added a horse and the whole thing became completely impossible. ‘Now, get rid of them all,’ said the rabbi, ‘and tell me how you feel.’ ‘It‘s wonderful!’ cried the man in gratitude. ‘There’s just me and the wife and the children, and we have the whole room to ourselves.’
Possibly the gadget we really need is the one that we can programme to get rid of all the others.
All progress may indeed be in the hands of unreasonable people, but it seems to me that the rest of us should reserve a healthy scepticism for all changes and, supposed, advances. To underline this point let me end with a quote from a perhaps unlikely source, which at first glance appears to contradict my opening remarks.
Advances – what advances? The number of hours women devote to housework has not changed since 1930, despite all the vacuum cleaners, washer/dryers, trash compactors, garbage disposals, wash-and-wear fabrics. Why does it still take as long to clean the house as it did in 1930?
It’s because there haven’t been any advances. Yet 30,000 years ago when men were doing cave paintings at Lascaux, they worked just 20 hours a week and the rest of the time they could play, or sleep, or do whatever they wanted.
Ian Malcolm, the mathematician in Michael Crichton’s
Evidence perhaps that in reality we have made no progress whatsoever. But I suspect that 30,000 years ago, while the men had all that time to play, sleep, or whatever, the women still had to spend just as long doing the housework. Plus ça change.
© Ken Burnett 2013.
This article is adapted from a piece that ran in Contributions Magazine USA in 2004 and on the Guardian Abroad website, 2007.