Money and Community

After a meeting the other day, I talked with a woman about what she’d heard and how it relates to her work in her neighborhood.  The meeting was called by government and focused on developing the community.  I said something about how money is not the building block of a thriving community – communities start with connections, relationships and trust, and those things lead to success.  The woman looked at me and said, “We need their money.” 

I have been thinking about that short conversation several times since then.  I think she is right.  I also think I am right.  That’s the problem with change, and especially change in a context as complex as community; we might both be right.

What am I talking about, you ask?  Right now the economy is despairing.  That is true in some neighborhoods more than others.  In this woman’s neighborhood, it is true even when things are good everywhere else.  So this current economic problem is a “badder” bad.  She is telling me, I think, that when a neighborhood or a community doesn’t have money, then more money helps.  Makes sense to me.  Even if that money comes with strings, or is a temporary fix, it seems clear that economic suffering demands attention. 

OK, so how am I also right?  A couple years ago, Kathleen Vohs, PhD., a University of Minnesota researcher, tested the impact of money of behavior.  Students were divided into two groups: one exposed to money and the imagery of money and the other was not.  Both groups were then asked to work on a project and the research team paid attention to how they responded.  Here’s the link: 

What she discovered was that even thinking about money changes behavior.  Sometimes for the good, but I think that in terms of what we know about building community it does not help much.  “Voh’s team found that the students in the money group worked longer by themselves on a task assigned by the researchers before asking for help.  But when asked to help someone with another project, those students didn't help as much as those who weren't exposed to money. And students in the money group also preferred to work and spend their leisure time alone.”

What I take away from this research is that a foregrounding of money tends to diminish a spirit of connection, the likelihood of reciprocal relationships and opportunities for synergy.  Voh’s team explained their findings in this way:

"As countries and cultures developed, money may have allowed people to acquire goods and services that enabled the pursuit of cherished goals, which in turn diminished reliance on friends and family."

"In this way, money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people's responses to money today."

Isn’t “community” generated by being and working together, more so than by being alone? If so, and if we genuinely value community, then what do we need to watch out for when money is involved? 

In the meeting I recently attended, and so many others like it, those with the money often seem to believe that this is their asset, and then see money as the primary answer.  It’s as if this is their “gift.”  Over time, it seems like those who have been without money for so long (or ever) begin to see money as not only the answer, but the goal.

So how do those with the money see this asset as only part of the answer?   How do they see themselves as “second investors,” and rethink how enduring change occurs? 

How do those who have been without money for so long (or ever) first draw their existent capacities and skills together to discern when the addition of money will be that thing that transforms? 

Money is one tool and it matters, but cannot be the only thing because it does not change anything by itself.  How can we think of money as the second or third resource when community change-for-the-better is our goal?