In Manaus, Brazil, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes meet, they flow together as distinct ribbons of color. They’re like two friends, arm-in-arm, striding together toward the sea. These majestic rivers are visible proof that solidarity amid difference is a natural and sustainable state. And when they come together, downstream, they create the mighty Amazon, lifeblood of a continent which, like our communities, would not exist if not for its tributaries.
The Power of Community Organizing
Manaus believes in making bold, well-considered risks. Risk is not the same as recklessness it requires the complementary values of prudence and daring, and the courage to be open to any idea even ones that others would discard as unworkable.
Sometimes an idea, ultimately, is too risky or a bad investment. But sometimes we’re surprised by its hidden potential and by the fact that nobody else has embraced it yet. Ideas like this are often the ones that truly disrupt and change communities.
Manaus also understands that, as humans, risk is in our blood. Our distant ancestors knew how to embrace risk-taking as a normal and healthy part of navigating the world that it added value and richness to the human experience. We’re grateful for that lesson and have seen time and time again how useful it is as a business practice.
Solidarity > Charity
All too often, charity is a one-directional flow from giver to receiver. This model is as morally presumptuous as it is ineffective. When our neighbors suffer, we don’t hand them outcomes we listen to them with great care, and then we contribute our energies and talents so that they might empower themselves, reorient their lives, and control their own destinies.
Imperfectly as we might apply this rule, it gets us closer to the sacredness of service: the humility that says “I am your neighbor, and you are your own leader.” Under this model, the savior becomes the listener, the learner. The saved becomes the impetus, the teacher. The impact extends well beyond the original project. The charity becomes solidarity.
Third Street Center
Third Street Center is an invaluable community and work space in Carbondale, primarily serving nonprofits and artists in the region. Created through a renovation of the old Carbondale Elementary School building, it is home to 42 organizations: 30 nonprofits, seven artists, and five small businesses.
Valley Settlement Project, known to-day as Valley Settlement, began as a Manaus-funded initiative but has branched off into a self-sustaining non-profit of national recognition. For us, it is both a proof point and a program-matic inspiration.
Mountain Voices Project
Manaus believes that community organizing is the best way to engage all people in a community to create change and achieve social justice. The result is the Mountain Voices Project (MVP), which is en-gaging institutions from Rifle to Aspen and to Vail in building a broad-based organiza-tion in the region.
With considerable reflection, we’ve looked back at the last 14 years and assessed where we’ve been successful, and not, and why. If you study your own organization long enough and take your ego out of it, you’ll see the patterns.
We believe that imperfect projects can be the most instructive ones. For that reason, Manaus doesn’t “move past” our failures we lean toward them, grateful for their lessons. Likewise, when we succeed, we resist the temptation to bask too long in that success. We observe it, interpret it, and apply it.
Lessons from failure
Don’t hesitate to move on. Although we devote ourselves 100% to any initiative we support, we don’t dwell on it if things don’t work out. That takes resources, time, and imagination away from the next great idea.
Partner with people who follow through. A project’s success isn’t just about the spark of an idea. It’s about following through on commitments for the full life cycle of the initiative. We’re stringent about choosing partners we know have the endurance and follow-through for the task at hand.
Remember that this is about people. Even failed projects can have positive impacts. If we look past the balance sheet to the people, we can observe positive impacts that remind us of why we do what we do.
Lessons from success
Resist becoming formulaic. This organization has never been overly formulaic we follow our instincts and support projects that thrill us and show us something new. We have no quota. We have no “in-scope” limitations.
When you invest, invest for real. If we decide to support a project, we decide to support it fully. That means providing adequate funding to enable a project to experiment and succeed, but it’s about much more than money. We also invest a great deal of our time, expertise, and hands-on effort. This is why each investment we make is such a thrill! We’re giving our best talents and energy, from inception to completion.
Design self-sufficiency into every project.
We propel projects that will later operate on their own, in some cases repaying our initial investment. This is not a fiscal strategy: It is a justice strategy. Only when new, community-changing organizations stand on their own feet do we consider our job done.
We’re guided by what you could call user-centered design thinking. Our expertise isn’t in one or two fields or issues, but in a process of creating solutions in almost any context. This process is about enabling members of the community to build solutions that will work for them, not putting a pre-fabricated solution in front of them. User-centered design creates phenomenal benefits to a project’s focus, practicality, and longevity. Here’s how we do it in practice, using three steps.
The beginning of any project is a time for listening and learning not telling people what to do. That’s the only way we can truly assess the promise of a proposal or understand the needs of a community. What does this process look like? It looks personal, for one thing we spend time in any community we serve and relate deeply with those we’re working with. Community leaders have asked us why we say so little in our initial meetings with them, and we always respond the same way: Because we’re listening hard. Normally, this stage also involves copious, deep research. Because of the variability of our projects, almost every one is a learning opportunity for us. Like good researchers in any other context, we seek to over-learn a topic before we pretend to have anything to say about it.
After listening and researching, possible solutions start to leap out, one after another. This is a thrilling time in any project. Alongside our community partners, we dare to think big reaching for answers nobody has ever thought of, even (or especially) the risky ones. As a team of thinkers and dreamers, our early ideas naturally scatter in all directions, but then a beautiful thing happens: We converge on solutions that are inspiring, workable, and often elegantly simple. Throughout this process, ideas come up, are explored and revised, and are often thrown out. When we create an environment of freedom and imagination, we unleash ourselves from from the constraints of precedent. Along the way, we remind ourselves to question our intuitions. Why? Because intuitions can actually be biases masquerading as answers. Moreover, our first intuitions about a project or problem can be repetitious or non-innovative because they’re informed by what we’ve seen or heard elsewhere. We aren’t looking for the expected idea. We’re looking for the right one.
You’re accelerating progress everywhere. This is how we think of our investment dollars: As fuel for change across the globe.We’re looking for a few individuals who embrace risk who want to disrupt the way things are done and the solve problems nobody else has been able to solve. We won’t accomplish that by asking for the same predictable, comfortable investments of time, energy, or money you might be used to. We’ll do it, above all, by harnessing your passion, your energy, your desire for something different by digging deep. Our vision is exploratory. We have not prearranged the coming years’ investments or initiatives, since do-ing so can limit our impact.
Our board is currently growing, and we need talent and resources. Maybe you’re the right fit for us, and maybe we’re that vigorous, unconstrained organization you’ve been after. The key here is ownership: Anything we help create will be owned and operated by those with whom we’ve partnered not “installed” by some detached team of consultants. Here and into the future, this allows the community to advance and thrive under its own power, for its own sake.
Our diligence and exploration up to this point usually result in programs that are practical, inspired, and sustainable. Manaus believes in enabling the communities or organizations we influence to thrive on their own post-launch. In other words, we know we’ve built something great when Manaus becomes completely unnecessary to run it.
The key here is ownership: Anything we help create will be owned and operated by those with whom we’ve partnered not “installed” by some detached team of consultants. Here and into the future, this allows the community to advance and thrive under its own power, for its own sake.
Is It Fair?
Any child on a playground recognizes what’s fair and what’s not. You take what is not yours, or you ignore someone else who needs help we know what these things mean. Even in adulthood, fairness, as a concept of justice, is clear and useful. It has yet to be hijacked, politicized, or turned into a cliche.
So, at Manaus, we ask a simple guiding question: Is it fair?
Is it fair that our neighbors’ children have no access to school readiness programs because of their income?
Is it fair that those kids’ parents, despite the ferocious love they feel for their family, can’t always be present because they’re working three jobs?
Is it fair that any member of our community should live under constant fear of legal retribution?
Is it fair that the Roaring Fork Valley is filled with well-meaning individuals and families who know next to nothing about their neighbors’ lives and struggles?
We will invest in just about any kind of project. It doesn’t need to fit within a narrow range of “expertise” or “key initiatives.”
At Manaus, we give ourselves the freedom to make any initiative our key initiative, as long as it has the potential to strengthen the community. Our principle of user-centered design, explained above, allows us to execute across a wide range of topics, fields, and partnerships.
By our thinking, investment success at the local level is also success on a global level. Every community is, in some way, intertwined with the rest so when you embolden even one group, you’re accelerating progress everywhere. This is how we think of our investment dollars: As fuel for change across the globe.
Calling all risk takers
We’re looking for a few individuals who embrace risk who want to disrupt the way things are done and the solve problems nobody else has been able to solve.
We won’t accomplish that by asking for the same predictable, comfortable investments of time, energy, or money you might be used to. We’ll do it, above all, by harnessing your passion, your energy, your desire for something different — by digging deep.
Our vision is exploratory. We have not prearranged the coming years’ investments or initiatives, since do-ing so can limit our impact.
Our board is currently growing, and we need talent and resources. Maybe you’re the right fit for us, and maybe we’re that vigorous, unconstrained organization you’ve been after.
We’ve done our best to put our philosophy, goals, and character into this publication. But the greatest community advancements start with personal conversations.
Talk with us and we can imagine, together, what we can accomplish alongside our neighbors here in the Roaring Fork Valley.