Going Paperless: So Near, Yet So Far

Photo by Whitney Archer

Going paperless is a dream of mine. I have this vision of a clear desk, where everything remains on neat, brick-sized hard drives, accessible with a click of a mouse, in sortable and searchable folders. And real estate on my desk uncluttered but for the room to dream . . .

I’m not alone. Every entrepreneur, nonprofit executive, and marketing staffer I’ve ever talked to hates paper for its tribble-like ability to multiply as much as the tedium associated with paperwork in general. But apart from the fact that “accountants, lawyers, and governments are still stuck in the last century,” as a colleague succinctly puts it, there are other good reasons why we can’t ditch the reams and stop killing the trees just yet.

White Space . . .

papers on a desk
What my desk can look like in real life, and does quite often. (Image by Evan Wood)

Remember the general relief when flying toasters gave way to the white space of modern web design? Paper is now the white space in my digital life. It helps me see the bigger picture. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but as someone who looks at many, many, many documents with many, many, many  words on the page, I’m here to tell you that sometimes when the screen isn’t big enough for that many windows, it’s calming to print up what I need, spread it out, and see how the puzzle pieces fit. And I’m in good company. People in all industries do this (exhibit A: the rocket scientist husband and his engineering ilk).

This is also particularly true of writers, speakers, communicators, fundraisers, cause advocates––you know, people in the nonprofit industry. I’ve many colleagues who print out what they’re chewing over, and read it off a tactile piece of paper, out loud, to see where they stumble, or what doesn’t sound right. Try it. It’s a very different experience than looking at your screen––where your brain has already locked into a pattern of seeing what it’s already seen. And, if you’re like me, your brain is trying not to get distracted by all the alerts and the never-ending temptation of the interwebs. Squirrel!

WiFi What?

Ah yes, the lovely cloud. That which is truly a marvel I love. But that which can also be zapped, just as quickly as that near indestructible external hard drive, which can also inexplicably fail. Unhelpful in the extreme when you’re on deadline, in a pitch meeting, dealing with the audit––you know, situations where your inability to get to your document is not anyone else’s problem AND makes you look bad.

Also, to the squirrel point, sometimes paper allows you to walk away from all online distractions, and focus on the meeting at hand. Focus helps you look good.


(image by miggslives)

It’s tactile. And if I’m not near a computer, how else are you going to make your case? This might seem like a bit of a redux of the last wifi point, but it’s inspired by a recent interaction with a lovely, earnest, and sincere nonprofit volunteer at a street corner in DC. There I was, leaving the coffee shop, and there he was smiling at me. I’ve done his gig enough times in my youth to know what was coming–he wants a minute of my time to tell me about a cause. And you know what? He was so polite, I was happy to listen for the 45 seconds I had before the light changed. But he had nothing to give me. No clipboard to sign. Nothing for me to take away and peruse after he’d made his case. He wanted to talk to me, and ask me to make a financial donation to his fairly well known org–after a conversation on a street corner? Not gonna happen.

And in that moment, I realized all over again, why we–particularly in the nonprofit, cause advocate world–shall not be free of paper until we are all equipped with easily bumpable devices.

Guess I’ll go clean up my desk now.