“But after a few weeks he noticed that he was spending an incredible amount [of time]. I’ll economise, he thought. He got up earlier, washed less thoroughly, drank his tea standing up, ran all the way to the office, and arrived far too early. Everywhere he saved a little bit of time. But on Sunday there was nothing left of all that he’d saved….
It occurred to him that there must be some government bureau, some kind of time bank where he could change at least part of his paltry seconds. After all they were genuine. He’d never heard of such an establishment but there would certainly be something of the kind in the directory under “T” or perhaps it was also called “Bank for Time”; he could easily look under “B”. Maybe he could also consider the letter “I” for he assumed it was an imperial institution; that would accord with its importance.”
– The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainier Maria Rilke
Imagine a time bank, an institution into which you can deposit little bits of time saved now to withdraw later when you need time. It’s the kind of bank that converts a whole lot of seconds into minutes, into hours, into days, into productive lumps of time that are “genuine.”
This is the kind of institution imagined by Nikolaj Kusmitch, the “he” in the story above. Kusmitch is a Russian bureaucrat for whom time is very precious. He hoards time, saves time, and otherwise manages time in order to be able to live longer. But no matter how hard he tries, his Sunday accounting leaves him short.
The “he” could just as well be a nonprofit board trying desperately to save time around the edges and yet meeting after meeting, month after month falling short to do all of those other things that would extend their capacity to do the purposeful, community-growing work that so many want them to do.
This is where German literature and the education of nonprofit boards intersect. (No, I’m not talking about feeling trapped in a Kafkaesque bug’s body during an especially long board meeting.) Imagine if we gathered all of the seconds, minutes, and possibly hours that boards waste trying to figure out how minutes should be written, how to navigate roles and responsibilities in the absence of job descriptions, or where to find the standard operating policies that Google just doesn’t seem to have the algorithm for. We run factories, restaurants and schools through lean principles, why not boards?
The result could be revolutionary. Dividends of time would accumulate for matters of true governance. We could withdraw hours to have the kind of “sense-making” conversations that never find time in a normal board meeting. We could dive into the policy decisions that hold us back and make sure policymakers understand the experiences of the people we serve. Imagine the kind of thoughtful plans we would devise. Everything boards are told they should do, they could do.
And that time bank? If we were able to create such a thing, I would venture to say that it would be found under the letter “I” just as Nikolaj speculated. That would accord with its… Influence… to change the actions and habits of the good people volunteering their time to make something important happen.