To be honest, James’ job isn’t to do nothing, exactly. Just not something. Which is totally different, if you think about it.
When people in James’ community are having a hard time, he listens to what they have to say, finds out what they need, and then connects them with the right people or agencies.
He doesn’t just give them the phone number, either. He actively makes the introduction, ensuring people actually make it through the maze of bureaucracy and get the help they need.
The nonprofit he works for -- let's call it the James Connection Service, or JCS -- doesn’t actually deliver any services itself, because this would create a conflict. It would mean that in the event somebody needs the kind of services JCS would provide if JCS provided services, JCS would be likely to self-recommend. There’s a reason travel agents are not also tour guides.
If JCS did provide services, people would be unlikely to ask the company for recommendations. They would go to a different person or organization, one without a vested interest in the answer.
And if JCS provided services, James’ ability to make connections for people might also be compromised. For one, he would be seeing things through the lens of his particular industry, and may be more inclined to recommend his own services even if they’re not necessarily the most appropriate -- a solution looking for a problem. For another, right now, when he picks up the phone all the agencies are happy to answer. But if his organization were providing services, his phone call might be treated with suspicion. Imagine Radio Shack calling Best Buy and saying they’ve got a customer for them.
James’ recommendations are of value as long as he and JCS do nothing themselves. As disinterested third parties, they have credibility and provide significant value. As self-interested suppliers, their credibility is compromised, as is their ability to deliver value.
People like James have existed throughout history and in a wide variety of industries. Some are more specialized, some are less; some are more neutral, some are less. Google, for example, has been called onto the carpet for favoring search results pointing to its own properties. We go to Google because we trust it to give us the best answer, not the Google-owned one.
Google’s dominant market position and our incredibly habitual use of it mean it will take a bigger scandal than that to unseat the search giant, but you get the point: self-interest calls objectivity into question.
And yet -- as Google’s experience shows -- it’s incredibly tempting to want to deliver something. You’re a search engine, you know what people search for, you know you can provide it directly and maybe make a little more money… Why wouldn’t you?
But you have to decide which role you’re going to play. Is your job to do the work, deliver the service, sell the product? Or is your job to help others navigate a bewildering array of options in our ever-more-complicated world? Each is important, but each is better off alone.
James has to deal with funders regularly asking him about his nonprofit’s activities. “You mean, you don’t actually do anything? You just introduce people to other people?”
Yep, that’s what he does. There’s incredible value in it -- and it’s not nothing.