Friday, December 24, 2004

Self sustaining

A farmer needs to deal with emergencies, water, weed, and watch for problems. But when he's not doing these things ... the fruit and vegetables grow. His efforts guide natural forces of growth, towards his goals.

I was thinking recently about how much energy it takes to set up such a natural system. In community organizing, the simplest version may be the revolving fund. Money goes into creating a self-sustaining system, and as it gets paid back, more systems can be created. But administering a revolving fund is not easy, much like agriculture isn't easy. But, in some sense, it is more likely to result in self-sustaining systems than a grant is. A grant gets spent, and nothing is left but some finite improvement. But a successful revolving loan fund continues to make improvements.

This is of course the primary reason capitalism spreads. The mechanisms for sustainability, from a captial perspective, are quite advanced. However, although the mechnisms act as an engine of growth, the results are completely inequitable.

One thing that bothers me about self-sustaining communit centers, is that it isn't clear to me where the "loan" comes from. The purchase of a "tangito", our coin whose value is one Milonga entry, is a loan to the Tango Center. If we sold 1,000, we would have $5,000 for capital improvements. If we sold 10,000, we could buy the building. In a way, this is the mechanism the government uses to finance growth, through the sale of bonds which will be repaid through future income.

A typical approach, for a community center, is to sell memberships, which are in any case required of non-profits. But memberships don't quite accomplish what a loan does. They should be instead considered a way of having your voice heard within the organization.

With the new project tool, I hope we can create something more subtle, where people can make loans to a project, like the Tango Center, which are small & immediately paid back. This is much more reasonable than asking for pledges (although we'll have that mechanism too), because it doesn't really lose anything. Assuming that the community guarantees the loans, and has incentive to make the project a success.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Structure of a non-profit community center

So, how does a Tango Center work? Well, the community makes it work. And in the end, that depends on what people do. Who are these characters? What do they do?

1. The promoters
They post flyers around town, at school, at work. They tell everyone they know about tango, and about particular events, and they bring their friends & relatives. They talk with the press about the center. They submit PSA's everywhere. They try to find sponsorships and initiate cooperative promotion partnerships. They get people in the door, so we can pay the rent.

2. The partners
They teach classes, sell coffee, repair shoes, sell CD's, sell tango-trinkets, and advertise what they do. They exchange tango coupons for something, to promote the center while it promotes them. They keeps a regular stream of new people coming.

3. The musicians
They love to play for dancers. Often, in the US, they are dancers themselves. They study the music, they ask dancers to come to rehearsals to give feedback. They try to keep it interesting. They invite others to come and play with them, both tango & non-tango musicians.They respect the recorded music, and are careful about the vibe of the evening. And when it's their turn, they play their hearts out.

4. The DJ's
They know the music, they watch the crowd, they smooth the transitions between recorded music, live music, performances, birthday dances, chacareras, lessons and breaks.

5. The Milonga Minders
They make sure that everyone knows each other, and that everyone's having a good time, They keep an eye open for potential disasters. They make sure the water cooler is full, that people clean up accidents, etc.

6. The dancers
They make each other happy. They show beginners a good time. In turn, they are shown a good time by more advanced dancers. Everyone does their best to keep things fun, to keep the floor moving.

7. The event organizers
They find good teachers to invite, arrange their housing & food and public & private lessons. They also try to get dancers & musicians to come from out-of-town.


The Tango center crew is world-class at making a good Tango evening, and a good community evevning. Should the Tango Center train people ... to do what it does? Is that part of our non-profit mission? If so, is there any way to make it self-sustaining? I've been thinking about this since we started the place. But the actual reality of it eluded me somewhat.

But it's starting to make sense. All we need to do is promote the idea. And make a curriculum:

1. Building community
2. Tone: positive, open, exciting
3. Good Dj-ing
4. Good teaching
5. Good dancing
6. Connection to the outside world

Now, we don't do all these things perfectly well. Mostly, that's because we don't have enough people watching all these aspects of the Center. If we had a curriculum, it would be first for the local community.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


The Tango Center's block, in downtown Eugene, Oregon, could really be called the "non-profit project" block. Downtown Eugene is basically abandoned, and a number of non-profit projects have taken advantage of the low rents, and made it their mission to revitalize the town.

Alex Krebs, one of the top dancers & teachers in the country, came here Friday, and beforehand we walked less than a block to the non-profit project on the opposite corner, DIVA. DIVA is trying to create an art museum for the city, and in the meantime is fulfilling its mission by providing gallery space, hosting art classes, and generally trying to gather momentum & interest around painting, sculpture, photography etc.

Tango Center co-director Olga Volchkova has an art show there, of her superb cast glass sculpture. We're tryng to increase the mutual support among all the non-profit projects on the block. DIVA director Mary Unruh is taking Tango classes, and she organized a block party a few weeks ago. In turn, I'm trying to make sure that the new online tool I make will be useful in creating all the connections we need to make downtown a success.

As Alex & I sat at the nearby Broadway Market, it seemed like there were lots of people downtown. The non-profits and the private venues in this small area have struggled to create enough energy to attract people, and it's working, but on Friday probably no more than 5,000 came. In a town of 130,000, that's pretty dismal. People are mostly still sitting at home, or hanging out in the suburbs.

We need to make the town more interesting, but not just in an "entertainment" sense. We can't compete with spectacle -- movies, TV, big shows, sports ... Instead, we need to create ways for people to participate. That's why social dances like Tango, Swing & Salsa can be so marvelous. Because everyone is trying to make the evening a good one. It's like a good conversation, or a good bit of work. It doesn't work without you.