The empty chair

It’s nice to think that we do our best work irrespective of time, place, location and habit. That we produce what we produce regardless of the setup.

But we also know that it’s just as much the other way around.

With repetition, you, in a certain location at a certain time of day, produce a certain kind of work that has a certain quality. This might be work that you produce alone, with one other person, or with a team.

“This is what we do here at this time in this way.”

The production of great work is, as much as anything else, a learned behavior in response to our environment. Writers know this. Athletes know this. Artists know this.

That’s why that empty chair is calling out to you.

“Come here, today, and sit. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but if you do, we’ll do great things together.”

Two roads

When you write, when you speak publicly, there are two roads you can walk.

On the first road, your goal is to get people to believe you, to agree with what you’re saying, to consider you smart, credible, maybe even funny. On this road you communicate expertise and mastery. You amaze them with your technique and your wit. There’s a lot of entertainment value.

“She was such a great speaker, wasn’t she? I just felt so good after hearing her talk!”

On the second road, the only barometer for success is how much you mobilize them to act. This road is about showing a gap in the world that is unacceptable, maybe even a bit ugly, and helping them to see that they are the ones who can fill it. This talk creates passion, it ignites emotions, and, most important, it creates tension and discomfort that are only resolved through action.

Their reaction isn’t about how great you were, it’s about what they now have to do.

Which one are you going for?

One week later

What a difference a week makes.

I for one have experienced much more sadness than I’d ever have expected these last seven days, in addition to anger, confusion, self-reflection, and some dread.

So what has helped, and what has not?

The first moment I woke up from the post-election haze that had settled over me was on Thursday night. I was sitting on the floor with my two older kids, playing a card game as we usually do before bed, and one of them made a joke, then the other, and pretty quickly we ended up rolling with laughter, tears streaming down our faces. That moment snapped me back to the present, to things that are good in the world, to feelings of pure joy, silliness and love that broke through the wall of numbness that had started to form.

Since then I’ve been paying attention to what feels useful, to what is helping me to move forward.

What has helped the most is engaging in the actions I fear might be threatened, actions big and small that demonstrate tolerance, generosity and inclusion.

What has helped is reaching out to people who seem closer to the front lines, and asking them how, tangibly, I can help.

What has helped are people around me who have shown strength more quickly than I have, who have stood up immediately to show their willingness to live their values, to stand up for what they believe in, to be human embodiments of the basic goodness that feels like it is under attack.

What has helped is starting, slowly, to minimize my own social media rubbernecking, and to ask myself: what information am I seeking, and what am I going to do with that information once I have it? Will it inform how I donate? How I volunteer? What I create or get involved in to fight for the things that I believe in?

Because it’s never been clearer that the new today that we are living in demands actions, not hand-wringing, and that we don’t get to be appalled or disappointed or outraged if we’re not going to do something about those feelings.

I should also add that now more than ever I think it’s important to be both vigilant and specific. Vigilant about fighting for values I hold dear, and specific in my concerns, worries, and what I hope to protect. Lots of what seems to have gone wrong are the vague generalities each side throws at each other, broad statements full of the word “they” that stand in the way of real dialogue. And I’m seeing more clearly that everyone, including people I strongly agree with, finds it comfortable to talk about “they.”

A week later, I’m still struggling to make sense of it all.  But in the world we’ve found ourselves in, one that is as unpredictable as ours has just proven itself to be, one in which so many people are hurting enough and angry enough and feel forgotten enough that they feel like this man, and the people he surrounds himself with, are the best option available to them…that’s a world in which we get a limited amount of time to “figure out what’s going on,” because what this world needs is our concrete actions.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to work in an organization that represents and is fighting for values that are important to you, in whatever form, then the best place to start is there: redouble your efforts in that context, where you already have relationships, reputation, expertise and understanding, while also searching for, and committing to, taking action on a wider stage.

Election Day

I have a lot of hopes and fears going in to this Election Day.

Today does not feel like a choice between two candidates with opposing views, or even between two candidates with opposing values.

Today I feel like democracy, global stability, and the last shreds of decency hang in the balance.

I’ve been trying to make sense of it all these last few months, and I think I have a clearer perspective on how my experiences and situation – including, perhaps most significantly, that I live a major metropolitan area – distance me from huge swaths of the U.S. population. I’ve come to recognize that the feelings of anger, hopelessness, outrage, and the sense that the system is broken, are very real for tens of millions of people. And I’ve come to believe that the pain that this election has exposed is not going away any time soon.

But, try as I may, what I still fail to understand, and where I cannot help but feel sadness and fear, comes down to what I understood to be American values.

I would like to believe that there are immutable truths we hold self-evident as a people and as a nation.

I would like to believe that any individual seeking public office – let alone the highest office in the land – must show that he rejects hatred, he rejects demagoguery, he rejects demeaning women and Hispanics and Muslims and pretty much anyone else who comes in his path.

I would like to believe that we all recognize and remember that we are a country of immigrants, a country of misfits, a country that fled persecution and marginalization to form a more perfect union.

I would like to believe, while our union is very far from perfect and while our language of unity has, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, papered over inconsistencies and outright hypocrisies, that someone who expresses hatred and disrespect isn’t “not politically correct,” he is trampling on core American values.

I would like to believe that Ryan Lenz, the editor of the Hatewatch blog at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is overstating when he says, “For racists in this country, this campaign has been a complete affirmation of their fears, worries, dreams and hopes…Most things they believe have been legitimized, or have been given the stamp of approval, by mainstream American politics to the point now where it’s no longer shameful to be a racist.”

I would like to believe that Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right in 2008, is wrong in crediting Trump with “sling-shott[ing] us a long way” and that he’s wrong when he says that he expects that “we can just look at 2015 and 2016 as the beginning of a new stage.”

And I have to believe that today our nation will show the world that the core values upon which it was founded still remain – albeit under attack and deeply wounded.

I have to believe that today will not be the day that the long march towards tolerance was halted.

I have to believe that we won’t look back at today as the last day that our democracy was strong.

I have to believe that we will remain “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

God Bless America. 

Impact measurement over the next decade

I had the chance to participate on a panel at SOCAP about the future of impact measurement, and was surprised how challenging I found Karim Harji’s framing question:

Where is impact measurement headed over the next decade? What is it going to take to get there? 

After pondering on this question for a while, I ended up at the conclusion that the future is very bright at the level of company-customer interaction.

I say this because in the coming decade, social enterprises, like all companies, will necessarily begin accessing and managing much more customer data gathered remotely through devices. It’s a bit easier to see this future when one is in San Francisco staying at an Air BnB and taking Lyfts everywhere: as mobile phones become both the communications and transaction platforms for nearly everything in everyone’s lives, companies, no matter what their specific business or the customers they serve, will have more data about us. While it’s true that poorer, more remote customers will lag millennials in San Francisco in terms of how soon they get on this conveyor belt, the direction this is heading, for everyone, is clear.

With that in mind, the only question at the company-customer intersection is whether and to what extent companies will incorporate data about social impact into their growing data flow. My thesis is that doing so will be a competitive advantage, allowing companies that move first to better understand how well their products and services are improving their customer’s lives, thereby driving greater loyalty, share of wallet, and share of mind and voice.

I believe this because, as our Acumen impact team has worked with companies on Lean Data projects, it’s become increasingly clear that value creation is impact when you’re dealing with critical goods and services like electricity or education or healthcare: if the customer who buys her first solar lamp stops using kerosene, uses the lamp to keep her business open later at night, and also uses a second lamp for her kids to study at night, then that lamp is creating deep and meaningful value (impact) for her. And all our data show that this same customer is nearly always a net promoter of the company, a source of positive word of mouth, and a high-value and loyal customer.

If this thesis plays out over time, then we’re about to be riding a huge, powerful wave that we’ll simply have to redirect slightly to incorporate thoughtful impact data capture and to drive towards impact management. Soon, even resource-strapped, impact-focused companies in the developing world will have no choice but to gather and utilize more data (including impact data) from end customers if they want to serve these customers effectively.

The question I find harder to answer, interestingly, is: What is going to happen to the capital market for impact? Here, things seem a bit muddier.

In order for capital to increasingly flow towards high-impact opportunities, there has to be some standardization in terms of how impact is measured and communicated, so that an investor looking to compare impact performance can compare opportunity A and B in the same way she compares financial performance for these same two opportunities.

I believe this evolution is a very important one, indeed it might be the most important development that needs to happen if the impact investing marketplace is to realize its full potential. However, unlike the evolution at the company-customer level, it’s less clear to me that there’s forward momentum pushing us in the right direction. It seems possible that we are due for a step-change in terms of how investors deploy capital for impact, and it seems just as possible that five or ten years from now things will be as bespoke and hard to decipher as they are today.

My best guess is that what’s needed to make a shift here is that a handful of highly influential and interconnected players – those holding large amounts of capital that they distribute through a large ecosystem of connected funders – need to establish their own higher, clearer impact measurement standards that they will use to deploy capital, such that their new standards flow all the way down the chain and slowly shift expectations for, and raise the bar for, everyone in the space. This was the role that the U.S. Government played with LEED certification through the GSA, which owns 9,600 buildings in 2,200 communities across the U.S., and I suspect it’s the pattern that needs to play out in impact investing too.

For more on this topic, here’s the link to the SOCAP16 plenary I got to do with Karim Harji, Jim Fruchterman, Kelly McCarthy, and Paul DiLeo.

socap16-impact-measurement

The Easiest Money I’ve Ever Given Away

The easiest money I’ve ever given away was the day after my wallet was returned to me, untouched and full of cash.

Having done the mental work of literally imagining living without that money, it was easy to see the request to give money away as a simple reminder: “Ah, yes, this money isn’t mine after all.”

The practice of giving is just that, a practice. And like any practice, it is in the act of doing that the behavior becomes normal, expected, and part of our lives – not the other way around. The practice of giving is how we pound away at the mold of who we are. We exert effort and willpower until the very material of our selves begins to yield and take on a new shape.

Part of that reshaping manifests in a new story we tell ourselves, a story about how to think about our wealth and our skills and our possessions and the choices we can make about how to deploy all of them – maybe, just maybe – to reshape the world into the better image we dare to imagine.

Over time, we also discover that, in the act of starting to show up differently in the world, the world starts to show up differently in us. In the act of trying to shape the world in a new way, the world sneaks up on us and starts to reshape us too. If we are very lucky, both of those transformations will be for the better.

Today Acumen is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary, and in a couple of months I will hit my 10-year anniversary at Acumen. Looking back, it’s easy be misled by the small, nearly imperceptible daily changes we have made in the world and that the world has made on us. But looked at from the vantage point of a decade, or a decade and half, it’s obvious that the changes are both profound and lasting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time, it’s that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work. It also helps tremendously to have people who are willing to show up alongside you, people who are willing to pour their best selves into a shared vision about what is possible.

To all the people who have been willing to show up alongside me, and to all the people who have shaped me in ways that I hope you know (but I bet you don’t know fully): thank you.

Matthew Weatherley-White on How to Turn the Capital Markets Upside Down

In further proof that most important innovation involves the reassembling of existing ideas in new, surprising and powerful ways, I’d encourage you to check out this talk by Matthew Weatherley-White at SOCAP 2016.

Matthew’s big idea goes something like this:

In Austria, organ donation rates top 90%, in Germany they’re below 14%. Why? Because in one you have to opt in to donating your organs, and in one you need to opt out. And what could be more important, or more personal, than organ donation?

So maybe the way to make investing with a purpose mainstream is to stop fighting to change people’s minds and instead make it a default strategy.

Discuss.

[If you’re not seeing the embedded video below, you can click here to see it.]

If I were to describe the video in joke form, it would go something like…

Q: What do the Twilight Zone, organ donation and ESG investing have in common?

A: ???

(If you can make that into an actual joke, you win a prize.)