Generosity excerpt

From a reader who was kind enough to share this story.

When living in NYC I, like many others, was constantly bombarded by people asking for money, spare change, food if I happened to be carrying some.  And like many I turned them all down.

I found myself working in mid-town for a year and on my way to the office each day I would pass a young homeless man just leaning again a non-descript building.

Nondescript man against a nondescript building not asking anyone for anything.

For the next six months I would give him $10, $5, $20, whatever I had with me, usually 2-3 days a week.  On the days I had no cash I would buy him a sandwich and drink.  It got to the point where I would ask him what he would like from deli and go get it.

He never said thank you, never bothered me if I was not able to give him anything.  Other than the sandwich order we never spoke.  To this day I wish I could have done more.

“To this day I wish I could have done more.”  That’s the part of the story that gets to me almost as much as imagining this silent relationship in which the giver is asking for nothing in return.

So and so, such and such

This is how it usually goes.

The pitch:

Dear So and So,

I’ve been working incredibly hard on _____ and I think we are at the cusp of a breakthrough.  My new venture is going to __________ and __________ and _______ in way that would transform ________ and enable ________ in a spectacular fashion.  It would mean so much to me if you would ________ and ___________ and ________, and also, if you could, please could you introduce me to ________ and _______ as well.


The reply:

Dear Such and Such,

Great to hear from you. Exciting work that you’re doing.  I think I can help with _________ and _________.  And you might consider reading _______, going to _______, talking to ______.


The thanks:

So and so, thanks a lot.  Will do.

–          Such and such.

Which is to say, we throw our whole mind, body and soul into the big pitch, into getting attention, into demanding what WE want, and then we throw it all away without expressing thanks and appreciation with the same amount of energy.  It’s not even 80/20 most of the time, it’s 90/10 or worse.

This isn’t just about crazy cold calls/emails out of the blue.  Time and time again, we under-invest in thanks and appreciation, forgetting that this relationship business isn’t a one-shot deal.  Not even close.

We have to be tough on ourselves and really ask whether we’re putting our needs ahead of our customers’ needs.  It’s so easy to do, and it is such a fatal mistake.

Simple, direct, actionable

You can choose to do one of two things:

  1. Try to convince new people that they want to help you.
  2. Give people who are already convinced they want to help you a useful job to do.

The first one feels a lot more like productive work, because you’re churning away and shouting from the rooftops.

The second one will likely have more impact in the long run.

Too big

Of all the reasons cited to give or not to give a philanthropic donation, “you’re too big” is the one that I have the hardest time digesting.

First, a clarification.  In my experience, most people who say that they want the size of their donation to be significant relative to the size of the organization they’re supporting rarely say “I am really good at spotting great startups but don’t feel like my expertise extends to bigger organizations.”  Rather, the underlying message seems to be, “when you were smaller, I knew my gift made a difference.  Now that you’re bigger, I’m not so sure.”

Analytically, we can agree that size is a poor predictor of effectiveness (you can be big and effective or big and ineffective; small and effective and small and ineffective).  Yet the concern, more often than not, seems to be size itself.  There’s rarely any overt assertion that through growing the organization became less effective (to wit, often one would imagine that size provides some scope for efficiencies).

In the face of this critique, rather than take the question at face value and conclude that we are not as good as we could be at communicating our own effectiveness (read: we need better metrics), instead we slice and dice ourselves up programmatically to create a closer approximation of transparency and accountability.  We make the big black box of “what we do” smaller – so we communicate a sense of “this is where your money is going” – as a proxy for answering the real question – “how effective have you been?”

It’s true, we won’t persuade all the people all of the time.  Smaller just feels right to some people, and that’s going to be their (appropriate) choice no matter what we are able to show them.  Nevertheless, our job is to be able to answer, in a convincing and rigorous fashion, how much change we created with the money we were given.

I’m not talking about “for $20 you can ________” (fill in the blank).  I’m talking about real change at a big scale, shared with an educated, interested philanthropist who is open to a real conversation.

When have you seen this work best?  Worst?

Shorten your backswing

It was time today to sit down and write a blog post.

I keep track, by email, of blog post ideas when they happen, and was just about to go into that email account when I saw an interesting tweet….that led me to a clever article about Occupy Wall Street, that….  wait a minute, what was I planning to do?

There’s the real work we need to do, and there’s all the muss and fuss that we do as part of our process of starting our real work.

This can happen a lot in sports.  In racquet sports there was a whole move-my-racquet-forward-before-hitting-a-backhand thing that I used to do.  I have the same problem (never fixed) when throwing a frisbee.  If you ever go to a yoga class, watch how much hair-fixing and water drinking happens at the exact moment the instructor calls out a challenging pose.

It feels minor, but think about all the wasted motion I was doing for the 500 backhands I hit in a one hour squash game – energy spent, speed reduced, extra steps taken for absolutely no reason other than that I’d built up a bad habit.

This isn’t just about not getting distracted by social media and your inbox (though those are particularly dangerous because they pretend to be work).  It’s about shortening the distance between “I’m going to start working” and “I’m working.”

Was it ever mine?

The experience of giving isn’t an objective one:  our relation to the money we give and the attitudes we bring to bear directly impact our own experience and on our practice.

So much collected teaching and wisdom about giving rests in the religious traditions, and I’m just beginning to explore what this ancient wisdom has to teach us about modern giving.

All the major faiths place great emphasis on giving – how could they not, as giving binds a community together, keeps it coherent, ensures a level of well-being for members of the community and stability for the whole community.  In the Jewish tradition, one gives the maaser (1/10th of one’s wealth and 1/10th of one’s income) as tzedakah; this translated into the Christian tradition of tithing.  Islam has a similar tradition of zakat, the laws of which are specified in the Qur’an.

In all of these traditions, giving is completing the circle in one’s relationship with God.  Our abundance is a reflection of the blessings we have been given, and when we give we are returning some of that abundance.

Whatever your faith (and even if you not religious) there is wisdom here.  If we are in a position to give, we have been blessed with good fortune.  We have the honor of being in a position to help another.

How different this notion is from a sense of scarcity, of needing to learn to let go each and every time we give.  I find this notion freeing.  We approach giving with the knowledge that what we are giving away was never ours; we approach giving with a sense of humility and with the knowledge that good fortune has played a role in our own good circumstances, and we are passing on a bit of that good fortune to another.

Who are you looking for?

The James Caird is the 23 foot-(8m-)long whaler in which Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions made the epic open boat voyage of 800m (l,300 km) from Elephant Island, 500 miles (800 km) south of Cape Horn, to South Georgia during the Antarctic winter of l9l6. Source:

What do your job postings look like?  Do they look anything like this one placed in a British newspaper by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, looking to hire crew for his Nimrod expedition to reach the South Pole (he never succeeded):


Pretty clear what you’re signing up for, huh?

Everything we do is a function of who is on the bus, the hands we have pulling together towards our common goal.  We may not be attempting to reach the South Pole, but we’re going somewhere important, and we need the right people to get us there.  People who share our values.  People who share our commitment.  People who are there because they are meant to be one of us – we just haven’t found them yet, nor they us.

Yet we punt on the opportunity to state who we are from the get-go.  We write bland, generic job postings, copying and pasting from the one we used last time and the time before that and the time before that.  We say things like “we are looking for self-starters who work well in teams, with strong attention to detail and a collaborative mindset.”

Huh?  It’s the hiring equivalent of mission statement blah-blah-blah: “we deliver excellence to our customers through uncompromising pursuit of top quality and belief in our stated values of trust, performance, and team.”

Please, please, please, stand for something in everything you do – especially in how you hire.  Instead of being afraid of writing something that some people won’t like, make SURE you write something that some people won’t like – because that way you’ll communicate something about who you are and what you stand for to the people who love that edgy, provocative thing you’re communicating.

Say things that only you would say, as a first step towards attracting only the right people to work alongside you for the next five or ten years.  What could be more important?

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p.s. for those who noticed/didn’t like the two grammatical mistakes in the title of this blog post, I was being ironical.