First Principles

In October of 2013, I quit my job to invent something new. I wasn't sure what that new thing would be at the time, but I knew there were a few first principles* that had to be at the heart of it. I also knew that I'd need to talk to as many friends, culture-makers, and social impact leaders as I could in order to get a sense of where my skills and experience might be helpful, and to learn from others' first principles.

I hope to introduce you to some of the people and projects that I've spent time with as this relaunched blog matures. For this inaugural post, I thought I'd lay out the ideas that I've zeroed in on through these explorations: the first principles that I hope to anchor my work in this new adventure: 

1. Know Your Passions. Seek Out Passion Work.

When I talk about my Principles, I’m talking about processes or ways of working that are central to both productivity and happiness. Passions are subject matter or areas of work that I’m most excited and driven to apply my principles to. For me, a few of these passions are:

  • Supporting artists and culture-makers, especially those involved in community-based work, social practice, and creative place-making. But also artists simply working hard to create beautiful, joyful, meaningful experiences. 
  • Innovation for impact. Businesses and nonprofits inventing new solutions for social and environmental problems. 
  • Equality. This is a big bucket, so here are a handful of types of inequality that I’m especially interested in helping eliminate: racial inequality, unequal access to voting, income inequality, and unequal levels of violence (I’d prefer we all have communities equally free of violence, guns, and exploitation)
  • Efficiency and design. I like finding elegant solutions to complex problems: helping users get what they need from a website in one click instead of six, creating workflows that prioritize a team's most impactful tasks, replacing a dauntingly long paragraph with a bold concise phrase or image.
  • The climate crisis. The rest of this list doesn’t matter much if we don’t have a stable environment in which to enjoy the utopia of equality we're working toward.

2. Teach.

I’m far more interested in helping clients learn the skills I have than I am in in creating a dependency on my skills in last-minute or crisis situations. For one thing, last-minute and crisis work can sometimes be avoided with better planning and stronger in-house skills. I’d like to build time in to all the work I take on to teach skills and preparedness, to create development plans for team members, and to coach or train leaders on digital fundamentals.   

3. FreeCheapSimpleSmall, and Scrappy are Good Things.

I'm thinking specifically in terms of technology platforms and digital teams here, but this idea surely applies more broadly. For example, the commercial tech sector is constantly upgrading their free and inexpensive offerings to keep them compatible with new devices and user habits. I'd like to help more social impact work ride these waves of well-tested cheap tech whenever possible, and avoid commissioning custom work without accounting for the long-term costs of upgrades and user research. 

Relatedly, a small and scrappy tech for social impact team can have a huge impact if their assignments are backed by data on what's working and what isn't, and if given time to strengthen skills and adapt new tactics as online culture changes.  

4. Build Community. Build Trust.

I’m launching a social impact consultancy. I have seen this sort of work go terribly wrong from the client’s perspective. A for-profit consultant who is brought in to a for-impact context needs to demonstrate their value and earn trust. Whether asked out loud or not, stakeholders and community members will have questions like: 

  • How deeply committed are you to our community? 
  • Aren’t you just getting rich off the poverty/climate/cancer/inequality crisis?
  • Couldn’t one of our staffers or volunteers have done this work for less? 

Earning community buy-in takes time, respect, and honesty. The work will have more value if it's combined with a heavy amount of listening and understanding. 

5. Embrace Transparency. Talk About Money.

While buy-in takes time and hard work, some mistrust can be cut through quickly with a bit of financial transparency. My compensation at SEIU—the job I quit this past October—is already a public record: I earned $125k plus benefits in my last couple of years there. In this new practice, I don’t expect to earn that much. In fact, if things go well and work remains plentiful, I'm interested in setting a sort of self-imposed "salary cap" at around $88,200 (a somewhat arbitrary that happens to equal to the median income of the DC metro area, where this experiment is unfolding). I realize that I'm incredibly privileged to even be in a position to propose such a cap. However, it does feels useful to me to publicly divorce the for-profit part of my work from the for-impact mission I'm trying to keep focused on.  

Why? It’s not that I don’t think hard work on hard issues should be compensated well. It certainly should be. For me, setting a cap allows me to structure my time in a way that enables the next two principles below.

6. Give Things Away.

Clearly there are a great many worthy social impact and cultural projects that have no budget for the kinds of services that I’m offering. An early investment in high-quality content strategy or team capacity-building on these sorts of projects ought to boost impact and inspire the confidence of supporters. My thinking is that If I keep my income and spending goals modest, I allow myself more time to work on the best projects I run across regardless of ability to pay. This may effectively mean that some paid work will subsidize my ability to work on issues that I care about, or that it will simply enable me to focus on the next principle below...

7. Slow Down. Experiment. Be Creative.

"Supporting artists and culture-makers" is the first passion I listed above, and it has been my personal first passion for as long as I can remember. I’m proud of the hard work I've done in politics and advocacy over the past seven years, but the long strings of 70-hour weeks didn't leave me much time for creativity and exploration. I find that it is essential to slow down and make space for experiments and creativity as often as possible to make all of my work clearer and stronger.

"Experiments and creativity" is a broad category, but it includes things like: writing a novel, photography, drawing and illustration, volunteering for a project someone posted to the neighborhood list-serve, curating an exhibition, experimenting with new ways of storytelling through technology, designing clever t-shirts, or really anything that is for the sake of seeing what happens if you follow an idea just to see what happens.

8. Share.

Much of the above can be reduced to simply, "share." Teaching is sharing knowledge, transparency is sharing information, etc.  The word "sharing" implies more of a two-way exchange than simply giving things away. There is a reciprocal nature to sharing. Sharing builds community. It is a critical part of healthy creative processes and social impact work. Sharing builds good will, it allows a broader community to build on a good idea you might have had faster.  

Maybe right now you'd like to share this article? Do you have thoughts on these first principles? Any first principles of your own that you'd like to share? Contact me, or share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @erikmoe.

*Credit for the framework of "first principles" is owed to issue no. 2 of the content strategy journal Contents, which started me tracking ideas for this list way back in early 2012. 

Erik Moe

Truxton Circle, Washington, DC, United States

Digital strategy expert working to strengthen the online work of social impact teams, culture-makers, and nonprofits.