Halfway to the Wall

Last week I gave my middle-school-aged son my old iPhone 5s (his first cell phone) and got a new iPhone 6s. The new phone is sleeker, sexier, more fun to hold and interact with, and the battery lasts all day long.

Fundamentally, though, it’s no better than my iPhone 5s.  There’s nothing important that I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and all of the improvements are at best pleasing refinements on something that already worked really well.

Reflecting on that, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve ever made a $750 purchase so blithely (paying $34/month takes the sting out), nor can I think of a time that I’ve spent this much on a product that I enjoyed so much and that delivers so little additional value.

Thinking about this, I began to reflect on how quickly the iPhone has run out of runway. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This means that it’s taken eight years to go from revolution to marginal improvement in the most revolutionary product to hit the world since the TV. Eight years.

The iPhone is one of a zillion products that’s running out of space to get any better. Our razor blades can have only so many blades, our TVs only so many pixels, our knives can’t get any sharper, and we can’t execute stock trades any faster.

It’s true that there are some places where we are leveraging the power of global capitalism in ways that will drive global change for everyone – and not just for the richest billion or two. The iPhone revolution will reach the poorer parts of the developing world in the next five year – another 2.5 billion will have smartphones by 2020 – and that could be transformative. Tesla’s investment in batteries has the potential to transform how power is being delivered to the three billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity.

But we’re not eight years away from solving the vaccine cold chain problem. Or from figuring out how to educate the next billion kids who live nowhere near a qualified teacher. Or from reversing global warming. By 2023, the new Global Goals notwithstanding, we won’t feel ho-hum about yet another primary care hospital chain that can deliver quality care at 1/100th of what it costs today; we won’t feel that the market is saturated with draught-resistant seeds that ensure that a billion smallholder farming families don’t go hungry; and we won’t be saying that we don’t need new ideas for making slums into dignified, safe place to live, because they’ve become so dignified and safe.

Part of the reason this won’t happen is because some of these problems are fundamentally more complex than the purely technical challenge of building a better battery or, even, revolutionizing mobile computing. But it increasingly feels to me that our real limitation comes from funneling the vast majority of the world’s time, talent and resources into solving problems that, increasingly, don’t matter all that much for improving human well-being.

What I wonder most of all is whether there is a shift coming – and, if so, when.

By 2030 will we have a collective awakening that causes us to say “wow, we really can’t create more value with the next best app, but getting another billion people safe, clean, affordable power [or whatever else is truly needed] is an opportunity worth a trillion dollars of investment?”

If not by 2030, what about 2050? 2070 anyone?

At some point, do we hit an inflection point where we say, “all of these toys are great, but we’re through putting all of our energy into getting halfway to the wall?”

And, if we’ll arrive at that inflection point someday, the next question to ask is: what will it take to make that day come sooner?

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It’s all personal

You can read every webpage about every foundation’s strategy.

You can scour CSR reports to see about a company’s social priorities.

You can analyze an individual’s past giving and the boards they serve on to understand their philanthropic priorities.

That all will help, but don’t be fool yourself.

Philanthropy is and always will be personal, deeply personal. There’s no such thing as the best place to give a donation, and there is no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer.

This is why all the best philanthropists have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, and, and and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping score, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO, not by a long shot).

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Here’s what you’ve been able to do

The Citibike app has a nice new feature, a pull-down menu that shows information on your latest ride and on your cumulative rides.*

It’s pretty cool to see that I’ve done 613 rides for 113 hours, covering nearly 700 miles. I never would have known that, and this helps me see the impact of Citibike on my life and my health in a new way.Citibike_IMG_4550So often when we engage with donors it’s about the next thing they could do if they give again. Most organizations miss opportunities to thank and honor people, and more still forget to make it easy for people to see the cumulative effect of their giving – what it all adds up to.

“Here is how much you have given, and here is what has been possible because of that.”

When we share that cumulative effect with others, we empower them to see how important they have been. And they’ll be much less willing to let go of that feeling, of their connection to your organization, once they understand what it all adds up to.


*P.S. Dear Citibike, the distances calculated seem about 30% less than the figures from Google maps.  That 1.7 mile ride (above) is apparently 2.4 miles long.  Just goes to show, once you start sharing this kind of data, people care about it a lot.

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The $30 million question

I’ve just heard a story of a major nonprofit organization that receives tens of millions of dollars annually from a single donor – around half of its operating budget – but is laying off staff because they don’t have enough unrestricted operating cash.

Again, Dan Pallotta’s awesome TED talk notwithstanding, we find ourselves having the same conversation, one that boils down to: is it a wasteful to pay nonprofit professionals to do their jobs well?

I wonder if it is we in the nonprofit space who need more guts when we take on this question. Maybe it’s time to say something along the lines of, “if you want your money to go directly into the hands of very poor people who need it, you should do just that and give to Give Directly.” GiveDirectly is optimized for this, they are efficient and transparent in their operations, they rigorously study their results, and they’ve shown the effectiveness of direct cash transfers for creating both short- and long-term improvements in people’s lives. It’s a completely legitimate way to help others, and it’s a great benchmark against which to measure our work.

“Or,” we should have the courage to continue, “you can have the point of view that the programmatic work that we’re doing is better than giving cash.” “Better” can be because it does different things (fights corruption); “better” can be because the impact of giving a dollar is more than $1 (investing in a scalable social business); “better” can be because of long-term return on investing that’s higher than the social return on giving cash (supporting a child’s education).

“But,” we should be sure to say, “if you believe that the IT that we do matters, if you believe that there is something real that we are bringing to the table that goes above and beyond your money ending up in the hands of someone who will benefit from it, then you’re saying that our judgment, our relationships, our expertise, our capacity for oversight, and our ability to create leverage for each dollar you give is real. This means that you trust this judgement and our expertise. So please give in a way that respects that judgment and expertise, or don’t give at all.”

Our homework is to really look in the mirror and evaluate why what we’re doing is, in fact, better than the money going directly to our beneficiaries. And, once we’ve sorted that out, we must have the courage to make that case and the willingness to look someone in the eye and say, “if you don’t believe this, then you shouldn’t give to us in the first place.”

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The show

Every talk, every event, every time you bring people together, you are really speaking to just a handful of people. This is your real audience, the people you are addressing, the ones you hope will be changed by that experience.

I think of it visually, imagining a camera looking down at the group – a crowd of people at an event, at a talk, a meeting of a Board of Directors. As the camera pulls up, the entire audience is in black-and-white, except for the few people that matter the most, the people the event is really for – I see them in 1080p HD Technicolor.

The show, ultimately, is for them.

With this kind of clarity, you can organize your narrative, the examples you use, the language you choose, the entire experience (including who they interact with) just for them.

You truth must still come out, your story must still resonate broadly, but if this show doesn’t have a clear purpose of “who will do what differently if we hit our mark” then it’s just entertainment.

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The problem with big numbers

The problem is that they’re big, and that they’re numbers.

Our brains are not capable of thinking about “1,000 people” in a real way, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 or more.  We don’t know how take something amazing, or tragic, that happened to one family and multiply it by 10,000.

Emotions, whether joy, fear, or disgust, don’t amplify that way. We just hear a number.

And that fundamental limitation too often insulates us from reality and from action.

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Confessions of a Barefoot Runner

I’ve been a proselytizer for Vibram barefoot shoes for the last five years.

My barefoot story began in 2010: after more than a decade of not being able to run thanks to an old nagging knee injury, I put on a pair of barefoot shoes and I was able to run again. It was magic.

Since then, I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my new shoe orthodoxy: how heel striking is the root of all injury, how our natural gait is disrupted by cushy shoes, how we were born to run.

I still believe all this.

Nevertheless, a month ago, thanks to a new, nasty case of tendonitis (aka tennis elbow) in my right arm, I had to stop playing squash and tennis. So, in search of aerobic exercise, I’ve started running more. Three weeks ago, the pound of the pavement in my increased mileage in my Vibrams started to aggravate my right Achilles tendon – a potential injury that’s even trickier to heal than the nagging pain in my right arm.

So, reluctantly and feeling like a traitor to the cause, I bought a pair of 2014 Nike Free Flyknit 4.0s and started running with them. Yes, it’s felt awkward to have an actual shoe on my foot. Yes it’s messed with my stride a bit. But the honest truth is that my right heel feels better, my knee is also still fine, and I no longer feel on the verge of injury.

While I do feel like a traitor to the cause, the reality is that running barefoot has taught me a lot: about how my foot hits the ground; about body positioning; about cadence (goal is 180 strides per minute). Barefoot running taught me to run in a way that works for my body, and the new shoes wouldn’t have worked for my knee had it not been for the six years of running barefoot. No, I haven’t given up on the Vibrams, but they are no longer the only answer for me.

So often this is the cycle we go through: a period of orthodoxy, vehemence, and learning. And then, sometimes, we choose to – or are forced to – reflect and adapt again, letting go of that very orthodoxy that has been our truth and our conviction for so long.

And I’ll admit that at times I hope that someday I’ll just arrive: I’ll find my truths and be done with the hard work of continuing to have to change and grow. I can hope, but I’ll be let down.

It’s our passion, commitment, and evolution that puts us in a different place, preparing us for the next cycle of loss and letting go that, ultimately, will allow us to get to the next level.

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