As Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County approach the official date of our intended merger, I’m putting a great deal of thought into what the final product will look like, do, and convey. Because the final deal is subject to two boards of directors, county or state courts, and the Attorney General’s Office, like every significant non-profit merger is, I’ve been a little quiet publicly. I know, right? Me, quiet.
But an NPR movie review today and the reminder of the retirement of a great film maker and animator, Hayao Miyazaki, made me reflect on what we will soon craft in the non-profit and animal welfare world. I think it will be something special, not because of what it will do, although that will be pretty awesome. It will be special because of how we- the staff, board, donors, and volunteers- are viewing our new creation. It won’t simply be a bigger, better charity. It will be something beautiful.
Most people don’t look at a corporation, a charity, or service programs in esthetic terms, but I do. It is probably the frustrated artist in me, the one which beats readers of this blog over the head incessantly with music quotes, film and art comparisons, and oft maudlin remembrances of those who inspired me via other forms of art. As much as I appreciate and recognize great art and music, I can’t write a song, I can barely play an instrument, as a graphic artist I’m a derivative technician, and as a writer I can turn a long phrase but I will never turn out a masterpiece. But I think I have a gift for artistry when it comes to crafting an organization and creating programs and services. I want not only to have a product, I want it to be beautiful, unique, and inspiring, in a way that is more appropriately in line with an artist as opposed to an executive.
I think most corporate executives, non-profit or for-profit, are satisfied with their professional craft in the way that doesn’t reach inspiration. They are technicians. Does it work, did it replicate something else, will it sell? And that is important. No one wants to be a professional Van Gogh and be the genius who never sells a piece or gets recognition for the organization until after he goes mad, cuts off an ear, and dies. But the fact that great art is not always recognized now, doesn’t mean we should aspire no further than what sells, or worse, has sold in the past.
And it doesn’t mean that some derivation is not a good thing. Picasso was brilliant in a way his compatriots were not but he stole the kernel of someone else’s idea routinely and then turned it into something so much better he might as well have thought of it on his own. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may have been inspired by Picasso’s introduction to African art, his cubist still lifes and landscapes may owe much to Braque, but they were so far beyond the works of others who may have inspired him that they established a whole new domain of excellence and originality. You look at Picasso and say, “Oh, that is what they were trying to do.”
I think that the “non-profit artists collective” we have put together in Berks County and have partnered with in Lancaster County are in the process of doing that right now in the organizational and service realm. We are in the middle of creating something in animal welfare which derives from the past one hundred years but is so unique and different that those who view it, work with us, and make use of our services will say, “Oh, that is what animal welfare has been trying to do.”
Yes, I just compared myself and my co-workers to Picasso, a man of small stature and giant ego. But if you are not certain what you are doing is profound and important, why do it at all? In an animal welfare industry which thrives on self congratulation and public self-martyring, we better believe we are doing something worth that self congratulation. We do, or at least we are earnestly making the effort. And I agree with Jim Collins’ book Built To Last. Ego placed in the service of the organization is not a bad thing; it can be a creative and powerful thing. Just ask Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. Yes, I guess I also just compared us to Apple or GE.
When we unveil our new creation, it will seem familiar. After all, it’s based on prior works. It will be accessible. After all, we want people to make use of it, not appreciate it for the concept but not be able to sit through all four sides, like some non-profit version of Metal Machine Music. But we fully intend that as we introduce the newly sculpted organization those with the eyes to see will say, “Damn, now I get it. That’s what a humane organization is supposed to look like.” Of course, we hope everyone else will simply buy it.
Miyazaki’s final film is about the man who designed the Zero attack airplane, a thing which resulted in ugliness but of which the inventor said, “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.” The reality is that animal welfare can be ugly. Animals get sick, die, and are killed. We deal with the worst in humanity too often. The nature of our work sometimes leads us to success defined by delivering the least possible failure. Too often our own industry uses these facts to deliver more harm than good in the name of the ugliness we see daily.
We can choose to twist something beautiful, like so many in animal welfare do to our mission through despair, lack of creativity, or pettiness. Or we can take something ugly or mundane and create something new and exciting and lovely, even if the medium is not paint or sounds but is instead corporate structure, program and service delivery, and operational protocols. We choose the latter and I am so looking forward to sharing our art with you over the next year.