The Inspiring Flipside of Bureaucracy

by Community Blog on July 7, 2012

Author: Liam Barrington-Bush

When I was told I was being made redundant from a national charity in England two-and-a-half years ago, I was upset for about an hour. Then I was relieved. Then I started applying for jobs. And then something shifted.

More accurately, it shifted when I was offered a new job; also at a national charity, but moving into the ranks of management. A positive career step, by any traditional measure, but when I thought about the seamless transition from one organisation I felt had long outlived its passion and usefulness, to another, I felt physically ill.

This was London, England, early 2010. Job prospects were poor, to say the least, so to turn down a steady income at this stage made no sense to many of the people around me at the time. But I didn’t see any other choice.

I got it into my head that I could do a lot more good outside of organisations, than in them. At 25, with nothing in the way of formal qualifications or paid management experience, three grand in the bank, and a recession that was being compared to the 1930s in full swing, I decided to become a management consultant… or something…

The truth is I didn’t really know what I was doing, but something at a fairly visceral level told me that I had to find my own path. Two years of pent-up creativity, inspiration, new ideas for making the world an ever-so-slightly better place, were raring to see the light of day. I knew, deep down, that they would not have the chance within the confines of someone else’s job description.

One thing I was sure of–and found in common with the two friends I set-up-shop with–was that something had gone fundamentally wrong in the world of social change organisations. But it seemed to have snuck-up so gradually that a lot of people hadn’t seen it coming. The creeping professionalization of the not-for-profit sector seemed to have played a significant role in turning the institutions we formed to make the world a better place, into jobs that somehow haven’t lived up to what they said on the tin. From grievances and labour disputes, to through-the-roof workplace stress levels and out-of-touch service provision, something was going terribly wrong, terribly regularly. Each of our personal stories seemed to resonate with others, in countless other non-profits, filled-to-the-gills with people who wanted to make the world a better place, but felt constantly stifled in their attempts to do so.

We coined the phrase ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ to describe our work. We noted that so many of the systems our organisations have replicated from the private sector have blocked our most natural of human instincts and practices. We felt that a return to practicing the ways we might do things without our organisational hats on, might help us to reignite the often-dormant passion and energy that organisational structures seem well-versed in burying.

While the feelings associated with soul-destroying bureaucracy were a joy to walk out from, they also provided critical motivation to walk on to helping keep others from experiencing such things in the future.

My money situation has been touch-and-go at various times, my job security non-existent, but I have also never been happier in my work. My days are my own and I feel like my work is helping to give others permission to let go of systems and structures they have known, deep down, aren’t working.

Years ago, frustrated working in a bar, while running a community project I had set-up in my spare time, I remember a friend telling me that if I really wanted to make the community and music stuff I was doing a full-time gig, I was going to have to take a leap of faith. ‘We’ve all had to do it,’ he said, referring to several of my de-facto mentors in the Toronto hip-hop community at the time, ‘at some point we just decided that this was it, pushed everything else to the side and made it happen’.

Several years later, I took him seriously enough to put his words into action. I walked out and walked on.

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