Our most important job

Schools teach two sets of lessons, one useful, one problematic.

The (generally) useful lessons are the ones that teach us the things that schools are meant to teach – reading, writing and arithmetic, progressing to critical thinking and deep domain expertise.

The second, silent, unspoken lesson is that schools are in the business of teaching us (defining for us) what we’re supposed to learn and master (they give out the grades after all).  And then more silently still they hand over this role to our employers who define the rules of the game with evaluation matrices that tell us if we “did not meet” “met” or “exceeded” expectations.

Whose expectations, exactly?

It takes a while (sometimes forever) to figure out that the most powerful levers for one’s personal development aren’t the skeleton keys that teach us how to be great __________  (speakers / analysts / bloggers / designers / teachers / coders / investors / whatever). That’s just skill mastery.

The most powerful lever is is figuring out what configuration of skills matter the most to what we hope to accomplish.  This is why we can’t outsource this process of discovery (it is discovery, it’s not a set playbook) to our teachers and employers and parents and friends.

Our job, first and foremost, is to figure out what it takes to be great, and then to have the courage and conviction to go out and do those things that will get us there.

The figuring out part is the messy, quiet bit that people mostly don’t talk about, even though it’s really the most important thing.

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The Butcher and the Baker

On my daily commute to work, I walk from to and from the train station.  It’s not that far – about a half a mile – and I feel lucky not to have to step in a car every day.  Many people, though, drive to the train, even a few who live right near me.

A few Fridays ago, a guy who I know a bit (a wave, a nod, pleasantries exchanged every now and again) was driving home from the train.  I was in a rush to get home to see my kids, and at that moment on a hot day, “hey do you want a ride?” would have been a welcome overture.  He didn’t offer, and while he was driving off I got to thinking about the distance between us, the oh-so-sacrosanct space of aloneness that we create when driving our cars, when sitting in front of our computers, when shopping online, when plopped in front of our HDTVs, and how through all the progress we’ve made, we’ve traded in the crush and human connection of the sawdust-floored marketplace, of common spaces, and of all the unexpected, simple happenstance that comes from living our lives stumbling and tripping over one another.

In the late 90s I lived in Madrid, Spain, in an airy one-bedroom apartment that opened onto a quiet, bright courtyard.  It was the second time I’d lived in Spain and it took this second take to unlearn my frustration at the “inefficiencies” of Spanish life: on Sundays, everything – and I mean everything – was closed except for churches, coffee shops and a few restaurants, and since the internet wasn’t yet so ubiquitous, my (now) wife and I developed a cherished ritual of going to a local coffee shop with the newspaper and spending hours wiling away the day, talking, and working on the crossword puzzle.

When we left Spain, as part of our goodbyes, we went door-to-door to the fruit shop, the butcher, the baker, and the cheese shop to say goodbye to the shopkeepers who had become part of our lives, who had advised us on dishes and taught us the words for pastries and cuts of meat and the best local cheeses.  Yes, going to a shrink-wrapped supermarket is more efficient, but shopping for food wasn’t a chore when it was filled with conversation and questions about how last week’s dinner came out.

I worry that with all the efficiencies we’re creating, we’re also facilitating a habit that’s averse to basic human contact.  It’s easier to smile and look away, easier to walk into your car than to offer someone a ride, easier to click and compare than get to know a salesman or a store owner or a neighbor.

The irony is that people crave genuine human connection.  We’re just getting woefully out of the habit.

Just crack open the door a little for someone and you’ll see the light flood in.

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Anne Marie Burgoyne on Outsourced Fundraising

I couldn’t be happier to have a guest post on outsourced fundraising from Anne Marie Burgoyne.  Anne’s role at Draper Richards is to find and support early-stage, high-growth nonprofits, and Anne serves on the Boards of One Acre Fund, LivingGoods, Mapendo International, Spark, Agora Partnerships, Global Citizen Year and Mission Continues.  If anyone is in a position to see these questions play out in multiple early-stage nonprofits, it’s Anne Marie.

When I read Sasha’s post last week about Peter Haas’ TED Fellows blog post (on the possible future of the fund raising industry), I jotted down ideas I had about how such an outsourcing idea might (not) work and why – purely as an intellectual exercise.  And then, oddly, an email arrived from Sasha asking if I might have thoughts on this topic to share.  How fun and here goes!

For context, I work for the Draper Richards Foundation – a funder of early-stage non-profits with high-growth models.  We see 40-500 applications annually, use a very thorough diligence process to get to know the individuals and models applying for our grants, and fund 1-2% of the applicants with $300K, a board seat and participation in our community of practice.  We seek to invest in organizations with strong leadership, scalable models and sustainable impact and provide general operating support, introductions, and as much time and attention as we can to help our portfolio of entrepreneurs succeed.  We come from a venture capital tradition and firmly believe that fundraising is a key skill set of a gifted entrepreneur.

I concur with Peter Haas on a number of levels.  It IS really hard to raise money and it is hard to be good at fund development.  I have great admiration for people who raise money well (and those who continue to hone the craft) and I remember it being the hardest part of my job when I was an executive director.

Unlocking resources is the highest and best use of time, especially for an organization in its early years.  Fund development calls rarely are mono-focused on raising money.  A well-prepared, well-executed fund development meeting can yield partnership and board development leads, as well as identification of possible volunteer and full-time talent – a social network stands at the ready when a person who is committed long-term to their organization calls on a foundation or generous individual.  I am reminded of one of the findings from Heather Grant and Leslie Crutchfield’s terrific book Forces for Good “Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause.”

This sort of conversation only happens through good listening, continued dialog and mutual trust – with a leader who is intellectually and emotionally stuck long- term to their organization.

In addition, fund development keeps nonprofit leaders close to a big part of their market – a must in the bifurcated world of non-profits in which the “purchaser” of services is different from the recipient.  In my further past, I managed a sales team, and feel strongly that the market feedback role of revenue generation is integral to an organization’s success.  Many donors focus on a topic or geography of interest to them.  The questions they ask and the observations they share are often rich with intelligence that can help with execution and organizational decision making.

Don’t ever think that your gun for hire is looking for more than the money when they pay a call.  People respond to their incentives – and if their motivator is gift size alone then that is what they are looking for and that is what they will close.

In addition, there is a big difference between need (“I’ll take any money”) and want (“This is a funder who understands our work and sees our vision.”).  If a fundraiser is motivated by their “cut,” versus the trajectory of an organization’s work, mission creep is sure to follow.

The aspect of the equation that is missing here, I think, is that in early-stage work, all you have to offer is the reputation and past success of the leader and her brave and capable staff.  There is no consistent proof of concept, no execution in multiple settings, few impacts to share that are clearly replicable.  There is, however, a vision for change and a path to make the world different – and that story can best be told by the person whose mind incubated the idea, the person who is orchestrating its execution.

Once an organization reaches critical mass in terms of size and history – often when they have been in existence 3-5 years and have a budget of above $1-2M – hiring a committed and professional Development Director can be a boon.  These senior members of the team often have an area of expertise – high net worth individuals or large institutional funders – and come in with their eyes open to learning the mission in intimate detail and their ears open to hearing what current and potential funders have to share about the work of the organization and their experience as donors.  They can multiply the impact of the founder’s considerably, but are never a panacea – the role of fundraiser, and role of the executive director in fundraising,  never ends, it simply mutates over time as the needs of the organization evolve.

I am a big fan of outsourcing non-critical path tasks that are routine, time consuming and distracting – but fund development is not one of them.  Human capital is the heart the non-profit engine.  And relationships with funders as people and as connectors, rather than wallets, builds deep capacity for future giving – of money, of ideas, of additional relationships.

Founders and leaders, especially in the early years when an organization is building its model, reputation and brand, are in the best position to successfully raise funds and to build deep and broad relationships that will be a foundation for future success.

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Pictures and Frames

Here’s an idea pilfered (with permission) from my friend Jennifer.

It turns out that when people go to museums, they spend up to 10 times as much of their time reading the blurbs next to the artwork as they spend looking at the artwork itself.

Which might be why, when we try to describe what we do, we essentially write blurbs that are good enough (at best) to sit next to the picture…which is a shame since we’re all in the business of creating art.  You know: “We aim to revolutionize the customer experience by enabling real-time interaction in a customer-centric fashion using…..”  (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz).

And yes, the nonprofit sector is the worst offender here, because the things we’re doing, the things in the picture frame, are so motivating and so real, and they inspires such a deep human connection that it’s doubly shameful that we use such wilted language to describe what we do.

So, the next time you sit down to write down what you do or to explain it to someone, start by imagining the picture that’s inside the frame, and describe what you see instead.

I promise it will be more real, less polished, and less likely to be interchangeable with the next organization up the block that seems, to all of us, to do the same thing you do.   (And I bet you’ll write it in real English too!)

Go ahead, even if it’s not your job to do this stuff, imagine the picture that’s inside the frame for your organization.  Describe it 6 words or less.  Send your description to the CEO and to the people that really matter.

Have fun.

[NOTE: Just realized that Katya’s (Network for Good COO) blog has some great step-by-step tips about how to do this.  Thanks Katya!]

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What’s working?

Last week I had a meeting that I’d set up with a colleague to get her perspective on how I’m doing at work.  It was a revelation.  She spent most of the meeting saying “What’s working well is…”  “What you should keep doing is…”

Seriously?  Do MORE of this??!!  That’s not how these meetings are supposed to go, is it?

No, what we all normally do is make broad, glossy, perfunctory generalizations about the good stuff and then take a deep breath and say, “And now here are all the things that you really need to get right,” while the person we’re talking to – who we like and respect and we think does great work – sits white-knuckled, ready to take the medicine.

But why do we do this? Do we really think this is how people learn and improve? It’s not like telling people all the things they’re doing wrong is any more actionable than telling them all that they’re doing right. And they’re surely doing a lot more right than they’re doing wrong, right?

I think we get confused because we’re not good at, nor are we in the habit of, giving people very specific complements. Yet we slowly, quietly practice the zinger critique ever time we walk out of a meeting, rolling our eyes, explaining to whoever will listen all we would have done differently.

It’s worth practicing. Telling people specific things that are going great will help them and you identify what’s going right, so it’s more likely to be amplified. Plus, doing this has the added pop of being so incredibly surprising that you’ll inevitably get people’s attention.

You can start with yourself, you know.

What’s going great that you want to do more of?

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Hope, Pakistan, and the power of storytelling

From Acumen Fund’s *spark! event last month.

Getting to work with people like Jawad Aslam gets me out of bed in the morning.

I promise this is worth seeing through to the end.

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Getting out of Quadrant 2

When you start out in life, just get out of school, and are out there pounding the pavement for that first job or trying to make that first sales call, more often than not you’re carrying around a mental model that says: “To pull this off, I need to get my point across effectively.  I need to convince the person I’m meeting with that _________”  (they should hire me; they should buy this product; they should give to my organization.)   In service of this goal, you execute your plan of where the meeting is going to go, you get your points across, and you do most of the talking.

Why not?  It’s what you’ve been trained to do.  It’s a Quadrant 2 approach.  And it often doesn’t work.

About 10 years ago, right before I headed into a job interview, my wife said to me, “Make sure you give THEM time to talk too.”  Novel.  In the first of the three interviews I had that day, meeting with a garrulous, extroverted Vice President, I spoke for about 5 minutes of the one hour interview.  And I got the job.

Most high-achieving Type A folks need to move to the left.

And all of us need to figure out in which quadrant we are most comfortable, and to figure out how to get better at switching from one to another depending on the person we’re meeting and the relationship we’re trying to build.

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