The Mongoliad, the future of nonprofit-as-narrative, and the demise of nonprofit-as-organization

There’s an intriguing piece in Fast Company on Neal Stephenson’s effort to reinvent the novel as a “social media app”. The best and most detailed description of what Stephenson has in mind is found on the Mongoliad’s Facebook page. Let me quote it at length because it doesn’t make much sense unless you can get the whole idea on the table, er, iPad tablet:

The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.

Our story begins with a serial novel of sorts, which we will release over the course of about a year. Neal Stephenson created the world in which The Mongoliad is set, and presides benevolently over it. Our first set of stories is being written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, and a number of other authors; we’re also working closely with artists, fight choreographers & other martial artists, programmers, film-makers, game designers, and a bunch of other folks to produce an ongoing stream of nontextual, para-narrative, and extra-narrative stuff which we think brings the story to life in ways that are pleasingly unique, and which can’t be done in any single medium.

Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.

In short, Stephenson is changing the novel from something written by an author and read by a reader to something over which the author “benevolently presides” and the reader uses as a series of tools to make meaning that fills out and completes the author’s original vision.

Believe it or not, I experienced something very similar to this at, of all places, a nonprofit fundraising banquet I emceed last week.

With This Ring was founded by Ali Eastburn in 2007. She was leading worship at a Christian women’s retreat in Orange County, California. As she looked out at all the wealthy worshipers raising their hands in praise, she had this distinct sense that God was calling her–and maybe them, too–to sell their rings and donate the proceeds to drill clean drinking water wells in Africa.

When she finished her worship set, she excitedly told the women what she was thinking. Their response wasn’t nearly so excited, but, undaunted, Ali sold her own ring and drilled a well anyway.

And so far nearly 300 others have followed her lead and donated rings through With This Ring.

What all of this has to do with The Mongoliad:

After last year’s banquet, Ali spent the night in the Anaheim Marriott (where the banquet had been held) because she was too tired to head home, and they had comped her a room anyway. The hotel clerk, Lindsay, who checked Ali in inquired what all this With This Ring stuff was about…and promptly got wrapped up in the story, too:

Her fiance bought Ali’s original ring, re-set with a cubic zirconium in it, and the two pledged to use their wedding as the means to raise money for an additional drinking water well.

So Lindsay and her husband spoke at the banquet the other night.

I told the banquet attendees that With This Ring was less like a nonprofit than you supported and more like a story you got drawn into. And, as if to underscore that message, Ali surprised everyone by taking a $14,000 Tiffany bracelet donated by a woman named Tracy and loaning it from now until the next With This Ring banquet to one of the banquet attendees.

There was no prior announcement of this to anyone who was coming–just a little note in the evening’s program that said “The Bracelet”. After showing a video of Tracy’s story, Ali noted that rather than selling the bracelet right away, Tracy wanted to “gift” it temporarily to one of the women at the banquet–someone chosen the evening of the banquet by prayerful discernment–who would commit to wearing it every day wherever she went over the course of the next year and sharing the story of the bracelet and of With This Ring.

A woman named Brianna (whom no one knew prior to the moment she was called up on stage) was selected as the recipient. She had just been married five weeks before and said to me, “When you all announced about the bracelet, I knew it wouldn’t be me who got to wear it.”

It was riveting stuff.

There’s a part of my nonprofit psyche (the institutionally oriented part) that was going crazy thinking of every possible thing that could go wrong. Was the bracelet insured? (Yes.) What if the person selected turned down the offer? (Trust the Holy Spirit, Ali said.)  What if she walked out of the banquet and was never heard from again? (Interesting plot twist in the story, I’d say.)

What materialized was something very different.

A bunch of the banquet attendees went up and talked to her afterwards. A bunch more said to me, “When’s the next banquet? I need to be there so I can hear what happens with Brianna.” I would be shocked if less than 50% of the attendees failed to tell their friends the story the next day. (I’m doing so now through this post, for example.)

What happens when a nonprofit moves from being an organization to a narrative? What happens when the executive director moves from being the “leader” to being the “benevolent presider” over co-creation of meaning built around a cause?

We presently lack even the vocabulary to talk about these things in our nonprofit-as-organization world. We do, however, have a pretty good precedent on which we can draw:

The New Testament.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

What is The Great Commission if not the most powerful social media app ever created?

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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