Doing The Thing

Years ago, I was involved with The TAG Project. Maybe a year or so after I joined one of their email lists, Valorie King (the project founder) wanted to make the move from Voluntary Health and Welfare Organization to tax deductible 501c3 nonprofit and she put out a call for volunteers.

I volunteered to be a moderator and after maybe a month she asked me if I would accept a promotion to Director of Community Life, which would make me the lead moderator in charge of all the moderators for all the lists. I took some time to think about it and then accepted.

As a member of the team, I got to see internal information giving estimates of the monetary value of the volunteer work running the project and similar info designed to quantify and legitimize the project and sell the idea to others, presumably to be able to promote it or apply for grants and so forth.

After only a few months, I stepped down from my role due to a health crisis and also left the email list. When I returned to the list maybe a year later, Valorie King had let someone else take over the project and this person had dropped the plans to incorporate as a 501c3.

The project still exists. As far as I know, it is still a collection of email lists and a little website with some overview info and presumably still run by all volunteer labor with no monetization, grant applications, fund raising or brick and mortar offices.

According to the FAQ, The TAG Project was started in 1994-1995. My understanding is that it is the oldest set of email lists for the gifted community on the internet.

It never incorporated. I don't think it ever had paid staff. It continues to do its thing and was the best resource in this space for my needs at one time. It likely still is an excellent resource.

It's a small project with very low overhead that, as far as I know, is very successful at what it does. Although at one time they could quantify the estimated monetary value of the all volunteer staff and other assets at what struck me at the time as a substantial dollar value, it began with free hosting through a university project and has generally survived on a shoestring budget.

I think Valorie King probably wanted some kind of recognition for all her hard work and maybe felt like incorporating would get her that. Kit Finn, the woman who took over after her, was content to keep Doing The Thing with as little overhead and hassle as possible.

She apparently felt no real need for public recognition or a legacy or the like. She decided she could just Do The Thing without adding a whole lot of hassle to the process. The project is still rocking along with nearly zero overhead more than twenty years after I first discovered it.

The founder of Cyburbia also craved some kind of recognition for all his hard work and wanted it to make money to compensate him for the 10 to 15 hours per week he consistently put into the project for many years. But his idea was always "a grant" and he described taking donations as "I don't want to do a PBS-style annual begathon" and described commercializing it as "selling out."

After some crisis or other, people volunteered to help him moderate it. Feeling like he should, by all rights, share any revenue it made with the volunteer staff became a new excuse to fail to effectively monetize it.

He did eventually put some ads on the site and created a paid membership option, but it took him a long time to get there.

He was a civil servant, so taxes paid his salary and this meant he could just idealistically serve the public in his day job without worrying about whether or not his activities brought in money. For the longest time, he seemed incapable of escaping that mental model in order to figure out how to effectively make money with his side project.

One of the challenges small communities face is they sometimes get nothing done because they feel they need some kind of official bureaucratic structure to legitimize their efforts to accomplish something, like a 501c3 nonprofit. In jumping through the hoops to incorporate or whatever, they get distracted and forget their real mission. They lose sight of their purpose and they put the cart before the horse.

Similarly, books and articles I have read about fundraising have said that nonprofits sometimes chase grant money and then lose sight of their real mission. Grant money typically comes with strings attached and the program ends up doing the bidding of the granting organization at the expense of their real goals.

People sometimes don't realize the organization has completely lost its way because there is plenty of activity happening, so it can be easy to fail to realize that this activity isn't actually serving the stated goals of the organization. It's really serving the goals of whomever happens to be giving them grant money and those goals may have little or nothing to do with the stated purpose of the organization.

Chasing the almighty dollar or some kind of social recognition and sense of legitimacy can readily get in the way of Doing The Thing. Especially in a small community, the injection of burdensome levels of overhead and pandering to various psychosocial ego needs of various participants can completely derail the supposed purpose.

All activities take some resources, even if it isn't money per se. Someone has to put in the time and energy, come up with the ideas, provide the expertise and so forth. If you meet in person, there has to be a place to meet and a means to organize when and where this will happen. If you meet online, there has to be some online space for that.

But for a small project, it's possible to come up with most or all of that without money per se for the project in question. You shouldn't tell yourself that FIRST you need to jump through a long list of hoops, like incorporate as a nonprofit and get a grant, before you can Do The Thing.

It's hard enough to Do The Thing without saying "In addition to Doing The Thing, I ALSO need to do x, y and z." Or worse, telling yourself "FIRST I need to do x, y and z."

You often don't actually need x, y and z at all. Those things are often actively in the way of putting time and energy into Doing The Thing.

The same general principle applies to business. The single most important part of being in business is having paying customers.

People trying to start a business sometimes fail to realize that. Many people new to business put a lot of time and effort into establishing the trappings of business, like setting up a business bank account, buying a spiffy leather briefcase and finding office space rather than focusing on finding paying customers and developing a business model.

Depending on the business, some of those trappings may really matter, but in many cases they can come later, after you have paying customers. Lots of new businesses never really make money and are mostly window dressing.

Many so-called "failed" businesses are really a failure to launch. They didn't "die." Instead, they were never born.

I really liked this video as a good comparison of the two things in business terms. She talks about her first attempt at a business basically going nowhere and how she started a second business in a completely different way that had low initial overhead and a focus on actually Doing The Thing and making money at it.

This should start at 11:09 showing her free "tech stack."

Eclogiselle is aimed at helping small communities do planning and economic development. I believe that doing so effectively generally looks fundamentally different for small towns and unincorporated communities than it does for larger cities.

I believe a lot of small communities are failing to thrive in part because their idea of success is to somehow emulate bigger cities and what they end up emulating is the bureaucratic trappings of bigger cities and this ends up being an albatross around their neck. In the process, they often fail entirely to Do The Thing they wanted to do: help locals thrive.

If you are in a small community and have identified some unmet needs, I highly recommend doing your best to find a way to address that need with as little overhead and formal structure as possible. Write "Less is more" somewhere in your project notes or tape it to your mirror.

In most cases, a good project for a small community needs to be lightweight, like a bird. Too often, people have built a tank and are trying to attach wings and wondering why it doesn't fly at all and continues to not fly no matter how much more stuff they add to it.

Figure out what thing you want to do. Then Do The Thing.

Do your best to not get mired in trappings of Doing The Thing. A small community simply doesn't have the resources to spare for that nonsense.

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