How the art of wire twisting can inform nonprofit strategy

30 Apr

New blog entries have been few and far between in 2012, and by way of explanation I have both a confession and an epiphany.  The confession?  While continuing to work on great projects with wonderful nonprofits, I have also unexpectedly launched another small business that’s totally unrelated to Write to Know . . . at least on the surface.  It involves re-purposing vintage silver jewelry.

The back story is that when my grown daughter was home recently, we dug through some old things I’d put aside for her.  The stash included my tarnished childhood charm bracelet with miniature skates, globe, dancer, and more.  It stayed behind in the storage box, because it certainly wouldn’t fit her muscled wrist, and with today’s ubiquitous mobile devices, the clanging of old-fashioned charms would just be annoying. I started thinking about how the sentimental bracelet could be re-purposed. The idea gained urgency and scale when I learned that vintage silver jewelry is increasingly being melted down for its escalating value as scrap metal. Soon, I had a unique business concept to “rescue” and re-purpose vintage charm bracelets into necklaces while preserving their stories. More on that in a future post, when the “Charmed Lives” website is up and running.

Now, I have absolutely NO background in jewelry making; other arty things yes, but nothing that depends on precise small motor skills. So, I’ve been on a steep learning curve for both handling tools (the plier gouge marks on both hands are my proud battle wounds!) and for thinking through assembly and repair challenges.  I had a big lesson recently while trying to figure out how to repair a lovely 1940’s charm bracelet. Translucent milky glass beads between each charm were starting to split at the slightest bump, so I decided to replace the beads with something stronger.  When I then coaxed a replacement bead onto the first old silver link, part of the chain itself was so brittle that I couldn’t curl it back into shape. With twisted pieces of the old bracelet sadly scattered around my work table, I started searching for silver components that looked exactly like what I had disassembled.

My kind friend Mona at Harlequin Beads here in Eugene dissuaded me and offered to show me a “simple” wire-twisting technique to achieve my goal. Given my lack of aptitude, she had to show me four times, I had to watch her youtube video three more times, and then write down and draw each step on a reference card for myself before it stuck. Now the bracelet (see picture below) is reconstructed, beautiful and strong.

Here’s the epiphany. I’d been trying to find the needed components (beads and wire connectors) separately in a recognizable form and then carefully manipulate them into place. But beads (hard and brittle) and wire (soft and flexible) have different characteristics that I wasn’t accounting for in my initial problem solving, and thus I was making the task much harder than it needed to be. With a few deft twists, Mona showed me how to work with the inherent strengths of both materials at hand, using the bead to stabilize the unformed wire, and the wire to support the bead while building the chain.

The solution seemed obvious once I saw it, but it required both a shift in my view of the challenge and a willingness to learn from another perspective. And yes, this relates to nonprofit strategy in terms of how we deal with the cascading budget cuts, community challenges and political uncertainty stressing organizations to the breaking point. Do we sufficiently consider the unique characteristics of what we have in place as a foundation for building what we need, or do spend our energy looking to replace missing pieces (programs, services, funding) in their old form?  What do we have that’s more flexible than we think? What are the strengths in our inflexibilities? How can we use what we already have that’s flexible to support what’s not, and use what’s not flexible to support what is?

I’m inspired to assemble/adapt some new strategic thinking tools to facilitate just this shift in organizational thinking. More to come, after a short jewelry making break!