I have been asked, as CEO of The Atlas Society: Why did The Atlas Society not take bailout money from the federal government?
Why, during these tremendously challenging economic times, when 40 million Americans are unemployed, when the voluntary donations on which your organization depend are in jeopardy, when other organizations like yours -- including Objectivist organizations many, many times your size -- applied for and accepted government bailout funds, why did you forgo that route at The Atlas Society?
That question deserves an answer, so let me give you four reasons:
1. The Atlas Society is a non-profit educational organization -- our mission is to engage the next generation with the ideas of Ayn Rand. The Atlas Society is not a restaurant, or a beauty salon, or a car wash that has been shut down and prevented from doing business by government policy. To the contrary, we have leaned in to the marketplace of ideas, found new ways to sell our wares, and found new markets in which to operate. We’ve created new videos, leveraged new technologies, created new online forums.
The Atlas Society is the ZOOM of the Objectivist space -- not the movie theaters or the office building industry -- of our space.
Now, we have many donors whose businesses have been shut down and for whom it would be perfectly moral to seek restitution, and we stand by them in that decision. And while we are affected by the fact that so many in our community have lost their jobs, have lost their businesses, have lost revenue, and as a result have less disposable income to invest in our work, we do not consider that grounds for The Atlas Society to compromise our principles and rely on government handouts when we are perfectly capable of innovating and cost-cutting and finding alternate ways to carry out our mission without seeking government assistance.
2. As CEO of The Atlas Society, it did not cross my mind to apply for a government bailout. Many things crossed my mind in the early days of the pandemic. How are we going to cut costs, which we did before any other organization in our space, by proactively securing 20% voluntary pay cuts for the seven members of our small staff. How are we going to stay connected with students, which we did with virtual events and new online courses in The Waterfall section of our website. How are we going to stay connected with our donors, which we did through virtual Happy Hours and countless phone calls. How can we innovate, and delight, and entertain our consumers and customers alike with customized ZOOM backgrounds, and virtual reality avatars?
That was what was going through my mind as the CEO of The Atlas Society, which is not to say I was unaware that government assistance was available, but when I got around to evaluating pursuing the bailout route, it didn’t take me-- or our trustees -- a long time to conclude that this was absolutely not the right thing for The Atlas Society to do, which brings me to the third reason we didn’t go that route.
3. In the immortal words of Robert Heinlein: There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. There are strings attached to taking government bailouts, including you can’t reduce headcount. Now, I don’t want to reduce headcount -- especially with so small and so dedicated, and already so very modestly compensated a staff -- any more than I wanted to ask each member of our team if they’d be willing to accept pay cuts. But it would be irresponsible for me not to reserve all options, to restrict my ability to be agile and resourceful, and to impose on our already tiny team new burdens of accounting for our operations to bureaucrats at the federal government.
I know from personal experience of having lived through other crises, such as having my house burn down and losing every possession I ever owned, and having witnessed others in my community going through the arduous process of applying for government assistance, that for the most part, it’s a fool’s errand, that while needs may be unlimited, resources, particularly time, is limited, and the precious time that one spends dealing with government agencies, on hold with “help lines,” filling out forms, dealing with bureaucracy, is time not spent on doing things that will improve your situation, making a list, calling friends for help, getting the work done, rebuilding.
4. Fourth, and finally, The Atlas Society did not apply for government bailouts because not only were we not prevented directly by the federal government from conducting our business, but because at the end of the day, I am not a victim. The Atlas Society is not a victim. And to pretend otherwise would be an insult to the many of our donors who are victims of the government, and it would be an insult to our own imagination. I believe far, far less in the ability of the federal government to help me than I believe in my own ability, and the ability of our team, to find a way to help ourselves, and find a way to help those we serve by engaging them with the transformative ideas of Ayn Rand.
I believe in you, I believe in a benevolent universe, I believe that if I work hard, and inspire others to do the same, that if we have the right ideas, and if we provide value, that our donors -- active donors, legacy donors, potential donors -- will recognize that, and will step forward. And guess what, that’s exactly what’s happened. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve attracted over 60 new donors, and we’ve re-engaged over 25 long-time but lapsed donors. Revenues from this period (March 1st - June 1st), compared to the same time last year are up -- up by 192%! Speaking on behalf of everyone at The Atlas Society: THANK YOU. We are so grateful, so inspired, we do not take one penny for granted -- and believe me we count pennies here at The Atlas Society. We are not entitled to one red cent of your money, which you have generously invested in our work right now during these extremely difficult times, and frankly we are not entitled to a bailout either.
As an organization, The Atlas Society’s principled rejection of government support was an affirmation in practice of the philosophy for which we stand -- a declaration to our donors and friends:
“And we mean it!”