It’s all about the money, right? Past, present and future of NSU

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman asks the question whether people are inherently bad or good. Should we follow Hobbes’ view that civilisation is necessary in order to keep the bad at bay, or should we listen to Rousseau who claimed that it was civilisation that had corrupted men? In his book ‘De meeste mensen deugen‘ (which will be published in English in a few days as ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History‘) Bregman analyses a ton of scientific research – from archaeology to psychology, biology and political scientific research – to show that although we tell ourselves differently, mankind is inherently good. And that research that seemed to show otherwise (think Milgram’s experiment, consider the Stanford prison experiment) are actually based on a false representation of the facts that resulted from those experiments. People were not bad or evil, but when scientists push them in a certain direction people will follow. Because if there is a flaw to humanity, according to Bregman, it is that they want to help others, even if that means they need to do bad things.

Only with the start of settlements, with the start of private property, with the start of civilisation, we have invented rules and regulations that keep us from acting good. Biases and even just thinking we are inherently corrupt and selfish (thanks to books like ‘The Selfish Gene’) actually makes us selfish. And as people working together and acting friendly doesn’t make for good headlines, we are constantly reminded of how evil people can be. Ordinary people.

An interesting point to this, is how this has translated itself into management systems in which we install a leader to make sure that people follow the rules, do the right thing. Monetary incentives are added to make people want to do what they are told. But research shows that monetary incentives often actually counteract internal incentives. (People being paid to do a puzzle had less motivation to do the puzzle!) But society seems to revolve around money… money as the reason we work, we study, we give up our free time. Because that is what it is all about, right? And probably it is, because especially among those who earn a lot, many report to consider their work useless and pointless.

Nordic Summer University

This is all quite interesting, and it made me think of the Nordic Summer University (NSU). NSU is a voluntary organisation that this year exists 70 years. I have been involved with this organisation first as a participant, and now as a study circle coordinator and a board member. I’m the treasurer – which means I have to deal with a lot of the bureaucracy that everyone struggles with. Getting money from big organisations means you need to adhere to a lot of rules, auditing guidelines etc. Because, as Bregman would say, inherently people are bad so we shouldn’t trust them. It’s much better to spend a big portion of the money on accountants and managers to keep everyone in line. And so, as a volunteer board member, I try to make things clearer and more transparent, to show the value of NSU in the financial report, even though everyone involved in the organisation doesn’t really care about numbers. These are artists, academics, students. Sure it’s nice when we are reimbursed for our travel costs, but we come to NSU and we give our time and energy to NSU because we get to do something unique: we get to experiment and think with a group of people who likes to look outside of the normal boundaries.

Some days ago, however, all funding options for the coming year disappeared. I won’t go into the politics of that. But it’s clear that NSU needs to rethink what it is, what it wants to be and do, and basically how to exist the coming years.

When thinking back on the things I’ve been trying to accomplish as Treasurer for NSU, many of those things were to work towards more transparency. I consider this a very valuable thing, to be able to show as a Board what one does. Transparency not because I want people to trust what I do, but because I want to include people in what I do.Because I believe in the horizontal nature of the NSU organisation, and that it is not me, an individual, who is to decide on important things which financial consequences. I work for transparency because I want to be able to work together with the other members of NSU.

The Board does a lot of things and there are a lot of ‘regulations’ that it has made for itself throughout the years: some written in the statues and clearly necessary, some not so necessary. And new people coming to the organisation, as with any organisation with a long tradition, would be overwhelmed by the complexity. And, again going back to Bregman, it is only managers who are useless themselves who impose complexity in order to make themselves valuable to an organisation.

Part of that effort has also been to better show what is going on in NSU. Money-wise. A lot of value was invisible in the financial report. Which is fine if everyone is intrinsically motivated and doing what they do best. But it doesn’t help when you want to show possible investors and grant-givers what the value of the organisation is. At least, this is what I have been telling myself. And it is true, but only when you follow the rationale that you need to prove you’re one of the good guys, that you don’t take advantage. (Although I would still argue for transparency and a good bookkeeping system under any circumstances, even if only to avoid rumours of the board going on a ski trip, which may or may not have happened in the past.)

But what if we would trust people, and see the whole network of NSU for what it actually is? A unique collection of highly motivated individuals who are willing to give time and energy to something because they believe in the value of it – because they believe in coming together with people who think differently, who challenge your thought, who want you to challenge your own thoughts. If we believe in that, then not having to adhere to auditors and high levels of documentation of every breath you take, might actually be a blessing. Might even help NSU regain some of its pioneering spirit.

But can we believe that? Or is that just wishful thinking?

(Bregman would probably argue that the opposite is also true, that to believe you need the bureaucracy and the money to pay for those levels of bureaucracy is similarly nothing but wishful thinking. Although we’d call it by another name.)

The History compared to the present

This past year I’ve been going through the archives of NSU which are now hosted and publicly available at the National Archives in Copenhagen. And although my research project had nothing to do with it, I happened to also look at numbers and organisational charts – as I am who I am and I cannot help being interested in all things to do with the finances and self-organisation. Several things stood out. Starting in 1950, there was a huge awareness how the content of the meetings was to be decided by everyone together. There was a secretary who would collect the papers, who would send out information to everyone around the Nordic countries when a vote was required, and who would type up a lot of reports. (This was a paid position, by the way.) But the real work, the core of NSU, was done locally. Local groups in the main cities around the Nordic countries would organise. There was a local board and there were local coordinators for each circle – depending on interest. And each local circle would host evenings where topics were discussed and papers were presented. Minutes of these meetings are still in the archive, very fascinating.

Photo by Nicole des Bouvrie, from NSU Archive in Copenhagen

And local groups would raise the money that would be used to host the summer event. At least in the beginning. There would be an organising committee who would organise a week (or longer) during the summer where all local groups and those interested would gather and discuss topics like ‘humanity’s place in the universe,’ ‘motivations of punishment’ and ‘the concept of complementarity’. People like Niels Bohr came and attended circle discussions about ‘mathematical structures appropriate for describing physical events’.

The main problem that the overall NSU board would occupy themselves with, is how to select the topics for the next year. The NSU archive is filled with intricate drawings of timetables and forms to be filled out for prospective study circles.

That seems like such a nice job to be asked from a Board, compared to all the issues the NSU Board now has to deal with – from changing bank accounts from Sweden to Denmark (more difficult than you might imagine!!!), handling of boxes of archival material, mentoring coordinators on how to use the Zoho system to upload all proper receipts, deciding on how to respond to external evaluations from funders, developing overall organisation strategy plans and electronic strategy plans, not to mention writing 100-page long annual reports and activity plans, checking the ledgers from the accountants when creating the annual financial report, managing the peer-review process of study circle proposals, preparing documentation for the General Assembly. And I’m leaving out a lot of things here. But maybe you noticed, that none of these things have to actually do with the main thing NSU does: organise symposia that bring people together. Which is done by the circle coordinators. A lot of the things the Board does, is to take away responsibilities from the coordinators so that they can spend their time and energy on organising those symposia. But somewhere along the road, things got out of hand. And the Board members are doing work that should be paid, especially when considering they are working to host a mindset that values money and that distrusts intrinsic motivation.

But what if we cut out the middleman? Last year the Board tried to introduce the concept of trust, by taking away the rules on how precisely the coordinators could spend the money they were given. Whether they would spend it on travel, accommodation or food – why not leave it up to the coordinators to decide how to act, knowing they would act best in the context of their situation. I think this was an important first step in bringing back more trust. But I think more should be done.

And no longer being tied to the rules of the external funders might make this possible. Might make it possible to go back to what NSU is about – the bringing together of people to change the world through thinking, playing, writing, talking, being. If there is a future I would like to be part of, that is it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *