Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The characteristic American behavior called volunteerism got its start with Benjamin Franklin's Junto, and has been a source of comment by foreign visitors ever since. It's still a very active force.

Making Volunteerism a Business

This is a business proposal, first laid before the Union League of Philadelphia because it seems the logical place to begin. Essentially, it proposes to create a service business for the collective administrative chores of many non-profit clubs and institutions. The business plan envisions one general partner and many limited partners.

The Problem to Be Solved

As the French tourist Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, the American style for getting things done is to form a volunteer organization. Ben Franklin probably set a world record for starting such things, but after two hundred years, the business model is fraying at the edges. We have become so accustomed to administrative luxuries that the faithful leadership is often unable to stretch to the challenge, while small organizations simply cannot afford the cost of doing things with paid professional employees. It seems a fair guess that a staffed administrative office, with computers and all, cannot be provided for less than a hundred thousand dollars. That creates a threshold of a hundred members paying a thousand dollars annual dues -- an insurmountable obstacle for most of the many volunteer societies we used to have. Is it possible to create a central agency which computerizes the common tasks for many organizations at an affordable cost?

How to Begin the Experiment

Without bothering to ask, it seems a certainty that the largest wealthiest club in Philadelphia is already busily at work on the task of computerizing its billing, accounting, payroll, etc. and is probably nibbling at the tasks of scheduling, name tagging, refunding pre-paid non-attendance, newsletters, websites, archiving, purchasing, etc., etc., etc. It seems a relatively achievable task to request that such functions be generalized to accommodate more than one organization; essentially, this is the substitution of algebraic variables for Union League specifics, and scaling up the processing capacity. And testing it, to ferret out the unfortunate short-cuts you will probably discover. Generalized programming is not difficult, it's just a habit that has to be learned.

Once accomplished on a few common tasks, the general partner can look for limited partners to test the product. Once tested by performance, you can consider charging for it. At that step, you will have to have customer conferences, and endure the painful process of learning what has proved to be unsatisfactory in the eyes of a non-captive customer.

Members, the Ultimate Customers

The public is struggling to cope with home computers -- cheap enough, but hard to learn. Another treat awaits them: in about three years, you can expect most of them will be struggling with the same learning curve on their portable telephones with miniature computers inside. This is not a hopeless obstacle, it is an opportunity to train them, and charge them for the service. You cannot expect to move much faster than the public at large, but at least you can make yourself the leader among the early adopters, and eventually the hero to the downtrodden masses. When attendance at the training seminars begins to dwindle, it is time to phase them out. The goal is to have a significant portion of the membership walking around with their daily schedules, and their reminder notices, and their emails -- in their pockets. To have the choice of programs and meetings on check-off calendars, which automatically trigger reminders, cancellations, traffic and weather warnings, and credit card charges, with rebates if they don't show up. When they get to a meeting, the door attendant will have a list of who is expected, with nametags prepared and sufficient seats at sufficienty staffed tables, watching slides shown on a projector that was pre-ordered and confirmed, with a speaker who has been repeatedly notified and reconfirmed with maps and directions, and met at the door by a representative who has been told to meet him, after he put his car in a space that was pre-reserved at the hotel that was reserved for him.

The only thing this informed member has to do is pick out his choice of meeting, and pay his credit card bill. He will surely find he can go to many more meetings than he used to.

The Middle-Man Organization --our Uneasy Partner

Any significant savings which result from this system will reduce employment at the cooperating clubs -- an uncomfortable reality to deal with. Therefore it would seem wise to begin with piece-work and vacation or overflow work, until it becomes common knowledge that this system is both better and cheaper. Certain functions, like annual dues collection, suit this purpose better than others. Those organizations which have recently experienced fraud or embezzlement will be more open to the suggestion of outside service. This is not the best kind of business, and its early losses will have to be anticipated and capitalized. The main opportunities will arise when clubs lose their main administrative director, a fact that might be recognized in the running of a head-hunter function which notifies you of coming opportunities and simultaneously creates a favorable climate for cooperation. Training courses for execs should be considered.

Revenue Sources

The limited partners should be charged a portion, say 10%, of revenue flow through the system, an amount estimated to be greater than needed. Toward the end of the year, say December 1, the surplus should be returned. If this system does not result in a profit for everybody, something needs to be re-examined.

The second source of income lies in the differential in merchant charges between credit cards and debit cards, typically a little more than 1%. This will of course require negotiation with the banks, but the truth is that the General Partner is assuming most of the default risk which this differential is claimed to cover.

Finally, this system will either work or it won't. If it works, it can be franchised to other cities.


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