Eclipsed

Often blogging feels like a chance to pick my head up to the thoughts floating around, to look more closely at them and explore what they might mean.

But right now, every time I look up, the only things I seem to see all around me are either the violent attacks that happen somewhere new every day, or the US Presidential election and its rhetoric of fear and division. I can’t seem to make any sense of it.

I find myself scouring the newspaper looking for something that will happen to make it all go away. I keep wishing it’s just some sort of bad dream.

I read articles about the perspective of poor rural whites to try to understand where all of their anger is coming from, knowing that on some level I must be out of touch, I must be failing my own proximity test since I’m not seeing what they are seeing.

I struggle to convince myself that supporting a candidate who spews racism, sexism, hatred and demagoguery doesn’t mean that a person is, on some level, open to racism, sexism and demagogues. I struggle to put out of my mind that in every single society that descended into institutionalized violence and genocide – every single one – the first step is always a gradual normalization of hate speech perpetuated by a strong leader promising salvation.

And I can’t help but be inspired, and feel hopeful, when I hear folks like Cory Booker proclaim that we cannot be a country where we simply tolerate each other, we must be a country where we love each other – and love isn’t always pretty or easy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fierce.

I cannot help but feel emotion when Michelle Obama speaks with fiery, motherly pride in describing her daughters playing on the lawn of a White House that was built by slaves.

I feel like on some level I must be a little bit blind, because right now I’m seeing lots of absolutes. Right now I am failing miserably to make sense of the bile, hatred and fear that is so appealing to so many – including the anger of the Bernie supporters, which feels both short-sighted and self-defeating.

I’d like to believe that I’m aware of at least some of my own privilege, and that this awareness helps me recognize some of the things I cannot see – but, of course, I too am prone to exaggeration.

Mostly, I’m coming up very short on answers.

I really, truly believe that this country was founded on a set of fundamental values, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

Yes, indeed, it is self-evident!

What this means to me is that there is an inviolable set of values that we share as Americans. And if these values are inviolable, then they come first, no matter how messed up everything else is.

And what that means to me is that when anyone, on either end of the political spectrum, is happy to trample on those values – daily, publicly, unabashedly, and without a shred of remorse – then we, most of us, nearly all of us, should be calling them out as frauds and as un-American, no matter what else we also believe.

What am I missing?

Buying Solutions Instead of Efficiency

At a recent conference I attended, Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, bravely took another stab and debunking the nonprofit overhead myth.

Antony’s simple framing was that we – as nonprofits, as funders, and as partners to both – need to decide which question we should be able to answer:

Question 1 is, “Are you efficient at delivering your programs?”

Question 2 is, “Are you effective at turning funding into results?”

Further paraphrasing the example Antony gave, he described two conversations a funder could have with a homeless services organization. In the first conversation, the funder asks the service provider, “If I give you this money, will you, in fact, put in 10 more beds to the homeless shelter, as promised?” Alternately, the funder could ask, “If I give you this money, will you make a dent in the homelessness problem?”

It’s easy for us to smile and nod and say, “Oh, but of course, it’s question 2!” but that is not how we behave. “Don’t waste my money” is the prevailing message coming from most funders who demand “accountability,” a conversation that often ignores the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.  And most social sector organizations are all too willing to play the game, communicating back, “Look! I’ve done what I told you I would do!”

This is such a low bar and is so fundamentally disappointing.

And while it’s easy to point fingers at funders who “just don’t get it” or at social sector professionals who either can’t be trusted to aim higher (so why are you funding them?) or who aren’t able to explain exactly how they are in fact delivering results (again, why are you funding them?), the truth is that the only way we get out of this dance is if we all truly pull up a seat to the table and do real work together.

The real work of deeply understanding the problem.

The real work of exploring what it would take to make progress on that problem.

The real work of recognizing that our organization, no matter how great we are at what we do, is probably not going to make much progress alone.

The real work of pulling together the people and organizations who could make some progress if they found the right ways to work together.

The real work of being honest about what we do and don’t know, about what part of the problem we are trying to chip away at right now, and about what success would look like now and in the future .

As we have these much deeper, more honest conversations, it will become clear that things like how much an organization spends on fundraising and management (aka “overhead”) could either be excellent or terrible proxies for judging the organization’s effectiveness.

For example, imagine you really, truly understand the problem you’re working on and discover, together, that you’ve got all the answers but are $100 million short of being able to make the change you’ve been trying to make. In that case, a massive investment in fundraising, or in a partnerships strategy, could be the single smartest thing you could do.

Or, imagine that you discover that what looks like an expensive and inefficient services model is actually a conscious strategic choice on the part of a nonprofit to focus on the hardest cases because that’s where they can make the most difference.

The list of examples goes on and on.

It’s time to stop talking about overheads and ratios, and it’s also time to stop talking about how efficient we are at doing what we said we would do.

We must hold ourselves to the much higher standard about turning money into solutions and about creating results, not activity.  The people you aim to serve will thank you for it.

Reminders in Troubling Times

Every Monday morning at Acumen, in all of our offices, we hold a staff meeting. It starts with context from the last week and ends with “Aha’s,” reflections from the previous week relevant to our work and to our mission.

These past few weeks have been a drumbeat of global news going from bad to worse, of fear taking center stage. At some point it gets hard to even find the right words.

Here are some of the reminders I heard from colleagues yesterday that I needed to hear.

That if you’re paying attention to the world right now, you are probably hurting.

That if you come across someone who is hurting, they could use a sign of love, of warmth, of kindness, maybe even a hug.

That we can express care and connection through actions big and small.

That how we act in each of our daily interactions has ripple effects for us and for those around us.

That the world desperately needs the people who are fighting against evil, against injustice, and against division to remain hopeful.

That these same people need support from people who, today, are sitting on the sidelines.

And that being part of an organization that is working to make positive change in the world puts us in a leveraged position to be a force for good, and that this in itself is a reason to redouble our efforts and redouble our hope.

Please, let us keep at it. Let us keep fighting the fight.

Please, let us keep listening to each other and holding each other in our hearts.

Please, let us show each other, and let us show those that are angry and frustrated and tired and hopeless, that what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

The Kick

I’ve started swimming again.

To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.

I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.

Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.

Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.

(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)

At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.

What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.

I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?

I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.

We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.

Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.

We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.

We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.

No Rush

It’s summertime. If you’re not on vacation, then you’re probably making space for some bigger, longer-term projects.

Inevitably, our work time is split into two broad categories: the busy things we need to get through efficiently, and the labor that requires our thoughtful, soulful engagement.

We routinely struggle to create the right balance between the two, which is an important fight.

We also cannot forget that the qualities that serve us well in one area serve us poorly in the other. It’s great to be focused, urgent, and keeping an eye on the clock when tearing through our inbox. But striving to be driven, focused and efficient when we are engaging in bigger questions and in harder topics that don’t yield to quick and easy answers is, with due credit to Indiana Jones, like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

There’s no “hurrying up” when we’re working through big, complex problems.

Make the time, take the time, and don’t rush it.

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

You can make change happen from anywhere

I hope by now you’ve had the chance to take at least one of the amazing +Acumen courses we have developed.

If so, you’re one of more than 250,000 people in more than 170 countries who has seen the power of these courses, and how their structure – group-based learning focused on real-world action – creates a powerful sense of learning and of community.

The course offering keeps growing, and one of our most bang-for-your-buck courses (where “buck” = your effort, since the course is free) is our Storytelling for Change course, which starts on June 21st.  We also have an amazing and growing lineup of on demand Master Classes, and I can promise that spending 2-3 hours of your time hearing the distilled wisdom of folks like Seth Godin, Elizabeth Gilbert, or Krista Tippet will help you move your important work forward.

I also wanted to let you know about a unique opportunity that will only be available for the next two weeks.

The +Acumen team is recruiting for a limited number of spots in the +Acumen Corps. This a special community for the most dedicated +Acumen students and change-makers – individuals who are committed to growing and using their skills to tackle problems of poverty and social justice. This is a place for learners and doers to keep on learning and doing, and to help others on their journey.

Members of the +Acumen Corps will have access to custom online workshops, to thought leaders from the Acumen community, to exclusive job openings and volunteering opportunities, and to chances to highlight your projects and receive support.

This is an amazing opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a network that is going to do important things in the world.

You can learn more here. And you or someone you know can apply here.

I hope you’ll join us. And please spread the word.

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