Our benchmark

The other day I had the chance to visit with Rohit Wanchoo, one of the three co-founders of Give Directly.

The idea behind Give Directly is so shockingly simple that you can’t help but feel, at first, that it can’t possible work.  The model is: donors give to GiveDirectly; GiveDirectly gives cash to poor households in northwestern Kenya.  Done.

Now here is some of the surprising information: this kind of giving (when you get fancy you call it either “conditional cash transfers” or “unconditional cash transfers”) is being practiced at a huge scale.  According to Rohit, it’s received by nearly 1 billion people globally.  In Mexico, it is called the Oportunidades program and it reaches about 5.8 million families, or 30% of the population.  In Brazil it’s called Bolsa Familia, it reaches 50 million Brazilians, and the program is much of the reason why, according to the NY Times, the incomes of the poor in Brazil grew seven times faster than the incomes of the rich from 2003 to 2009.

It’s not just that paying money increases incomes – how could it not?  Study after study has shown significant improvements in well-being, everything from improved childhood nutrition, increased birth weights, decreased HIV infection rates, increases in schooling and decrease in child labor. Also, the evidence shows that cash transfer programs do not increase spending on things like alcohol and tobacco.   And these are not just initial findings.  In fact, DfID, the UK’s main aid agency, recently published a comprehensive summary of the evidence to date, and DfID notes that cash transfers are “one of the more thoroughly researched forms of development intervention.”  Put another way: it’s widespread and has been studied a lot, and by and large the evidence is really positive.

So how does it work in practice?  At Give Directly – which is a new, small startup, though they just won a $2.4 million Google impact award – they go to a poor community in northwestern Kenya, survey households to determine which ones are the poorest (mostly by seeing whether houses have mud floors and thatched roofs – those that do qualify), and, for those that qualify, they give those households $1,000 over the course of one year, using cellphone-based money transfer powered by M-PESA.  There’s also a bunch of verification to check identity and protect against fraud.  And households can only receive funds for one year.  It sounds like a lot of steps, but all of this costs just a few cents on the dollar.  And from day 1, GiveDirectly has been opening up its to rigorous analysis to understand impact – not surprising since Rohit and his co-founders have Masters and PhDs in economics or development studies.

Just as a standalone idea, in terms of its direct impact, it’s interesting and important to understand this model.

But the big idea that really caught my attention was Rohit’s statement that what they really want to accomplish is to have direct cash transfer be the benchmark against which other poverty-alleviation interventions are measured.  Meaning, the development sector as a whole spends a huge amount of effort to demonstrate impact, and the benchmark is to show a positive impact relative to no outside intervention.  But couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, raise that bar?  Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether a given intervention (buying a cow, delivering food, or a vaccination or leadership training or anything) is more effective than the direct cash value of the program itself?

That sounds like a low hurdle to clear, but it’s higher than the hurdle the development sector is trying to clear today.

I haven’t studied the literature on cash transfer enough to really understand what is and isn’t known, what are the best ways to design the programs, what are the pitfalls.  Still, it seems like a very fair question to ask ourselves, to ask the big aid agencies, to ask the government: would your beneficiaries be better off if you just handed them the money?

Living up to the gift

It’s December, which means that nonprofit end-of-year fundraising is in full swing.  It’s an exciting time of year as checks roll in at a much faster clip – the fruits of your labor, and payoff for a year’s worth of tremendously hard work by your organization and your fundraising team.

Back before I’d ever raised any money, I thought fundraising meant going to black tie, rubber chicken dinners and having conversations as dull as the food.  It was the necessary evil of putting fuel in the tank for doing your real work.

It’s good to be so wrong about something.  It provides perspective, acts as a stiff shot of humility.

This year more than ever, as the checks have been coming in from people I’ve known for years now, I can personally feel their support in a new way.  Knowing who they are and how much they give of themselves, knowing how seriously they take their donation and how much trust they are placing in us to make a difference in the world with their money – it fills me with a profound sense of duty and of respect.  It makes me want to work harder, to work smarter, to do more to make them proud.  It makes me realize that my job (our job), now, is to live up to their gift.

To all of you out there (you know who you are), let me say, again: thank you.

When I interview

Just one thing is really going through my mind:  Am I energized by this conversation?

What’s energizing will differ depending on the role – its content, seniority, what skills and disposition it requires.

But at the end of the day, it’s visceral.

Gifts – The Icarus Deception

The other day I received a massive, 40 pound box full of goodies from Seth Godin.

I was one of the 4,242 people who happily jumped in to support Seth’s Kickstarter project to fund his next book, The Icarus Deception.

Of course, for $111 I didn’t just get the book.  And I didn’t just get 8 copies of the hardcover book (to give away), which itself would have been a steal.  Those 8 books took up a tiny corner of this massive box, which also contained two copies of V is for Vulnerable, a alphabet book for grown-ups, with wild, wacky, beautiful illustrations by Hugh MacLeod, about leaning in, creating art, and having the courage to ship; a delicate, hand-made mug by Lori Koop, with a hand-written note from Lori that reads “Seth asked me to make this for you….this is my art. –Lori;”  an LP (yes, as in a record) whose contents I have yet to discover….I just need to get my hands on a record player; and a totally massive, 11 x 16 inch 800+ page full-color book that, impishly, has a bunch of rubber ducklings on the front cover.  It is a collection of Seth’s best online writing from 2006 to 2012, and it’s literally the heaviest book I’ve ever laid my hands on.

Icarus Kickstarter goodies

My experience of this whole thing is joy.  I can see Seth smiling as I smile; I’m wowed by the beauty and the irreverence of each and every piece, as well as the chance that each of them gives someone else – not just Seth – to shine.   And the whole undertaking is, literally, delightful – my high expectations are blown out of the water; even with inklings of what might have been in the box I was surprised time and again.

It really is possible to delight our customers, to thank our greatest fans, to make them feel special not out of a sense of obligation but because you want to and you can.

And going back to the massive, 800+ page book, I also think back to my many experiences of sharing Seth’s advice with others – whether on publishing or on courage or on pushing through the resistance.  Yes, tons of people get it and live it.  And then there are the folks who  say something like, “Well yeah, that’s interesting and that probably works for Seth because he’s Seth.”

When I take this book, which physically holds just a small portion of what Seth has produced in the last six years, the only thing I can think is: he’s Seth because he produced all of this.  He’s Seth because any bit of advice he’s giving is something he’s already been doing for years; he’s Seth because he ships; he’s Seth because he’s not afraid to take risk, to show up, to fail, to shine, or even to look a little silly.

Finally, as homage to all of this (especially the silly part) here’s a little video that gives you a sense of the mega-tome.  Of course it’s not just heavy, it’s also beautiful and it will transform the conversations you have around your coffee table.  And it will remind you not of what Seth can do, but of what you can do if you show up fully every day.

Landfill Harmonic

In Cateura, Paraguay, in a slum build on a landfill, a community has come together to make classical musical instruments out of old oil barrels, meat cleavers, even forks.  From trash they have made cellos, violins, violas, clarinets.  And they play them beautifully.

If ever you doubted even for a second the power of dignity or the grace of every human being, everywhere, this trailer is for you.

I promise it will light a fire in you, will fill you with joy and hope and holiday spirit.  It will help remind you how easy it is to take things for granted.  It will, I bet, make you smile and maybe even shed a tear.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming documentary, check out the Landfill Harmonic Movie Facebook page.  They’re even starting to accepted donated musical instruments.

Sport

While the biggest highlight of my trip to Karachi last week was definitely meeting all the applicants to the Pakistan Fellows Program, the most fun and surprising piece was getting to play squash twice during the week.

Pakistan has an incredibly illustrious history in squash – Pakistan dominated the sport for nearly five decades, starting in 1951 when Hashim Khan, a former squash coach in the British Army, won the British open (dominating then champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0), and carrying through the reign of Jahangir Khan, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to play the sport – he won the Squash World Open six times and the British open 10 times, and had a 555 match winning streak from 1981 to 1986.  Unfortunately since 1998, when Jansher Khan was defeated in the finals of the British open, squash has fallen from prominence in Pakistan, but there remains a proud history and tradition in Pakistani squash.

And so, the day I arrived in Karachi, after 20 hours of flights and then heading straight to the office to work, I was particularly excited when my Acumen colleague Humza Khan dusted off his squash racquet and took me out for a game.  As I told Humza, on my spectrum of ways to spend a first night on the road, if the bottom of the spectrum is being alone in a hotel room ordering room service and watching crummy TV (and not being able to sleep because of jetlag), pretty near the top of the spectrum is getting to play a good game of squash with some (new) friends.

Yes, Karachi can feel very foreign, but to get the chance, within 12 hours of arrival, to step on a squash court with a colleague and then rotate through games with a bunch of other guys who were playing…at that moment when you’re on the court, everything else drops away and you are just two people playing a sport that you love, interacting as equals and using the shared vocabulary of a game.  And in that moment you glimpse and feel your shared humanity with ease.

It made me think that it would be fabulous if it were easier to travel places and find a great squash match, cricket game, game of pick-up football, you name it.  What better way to really get to know a place?

After our game that night, Humza (who does amazing work with youth football in Karachi) and I got to talking about sport, and he shared that the only time Pakistan feels and acts truly like a nation – and not tribes or sects or groups with regional differences – is when Pakistan plays a cricket match.

In sport we are human, and for a few brief moments all that makes us different is stripped away.   I wonder how we might access that feeling and spirit more often.

Another face of Pakistan

I had the chance to spend last week in Karachi for the final round selection for the inaugural class of Acumen’s new Pakistan Fellows program.  From more than 500 applicants from all corners of this country of 175 million people, we had winnowed the group down to just 40 finalists and had, in the course of a day, to select 20 people as our first Acumen Pakistan Fellows.  The program begins in early 2013.

The images the world (and Americans in particular) sees of Pakistan are difficult ones.  Just yesterday a very troubling article came out in the New York Times about Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, where there have been increasing numbers of open attacks on members of the Hazara community.  The article suggests that the police and security forces are at best ambivalent about stemming the violence that has resulted in the deaths of 100 Hazaras this year alone.

This is one reality in Pakistan, and it is daunting to say the least.

Last week I saw another story, perhaps a quieter one and one that doesn’t scream for headlines.  These are the stories of the applicants to our Pakistan Fellows program: a woman from rural Punjab, the first in her family to get a formal education, who is working on extending credit and education to those who are still excluded from all formal systems; a woman with a Masters in Economics who left her teaching job at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi and is now creating a speed English literacy program for kids in the slums; another young man, a born entrepreneur from a very humble background, who somehow found his way to a quiet section of the library and began reading Harvard Business Review articles and then watching TED talks, and whose startup business Hometown (the website will blow you away) aims to have local artisans and leather-workers provide world-class quality shoes to the world; and finally, a man with a Master’s in Computer Science who is working in Quetta, Balochistan – the same city profiled in the NY Times piece – who is helping build a university from scratch to bring education to some of the most tough-to-reach, downtrodden populations, and is paying for it by creating small businesses ranging from biomass power generation to cut flowers.

These were just four of the 40 amazing people I met last Friday, each one with a story of hope, each one committing themselves fully to making positive change from the bottom up in Pakistan, each one leaving our panelists – all prominent business and social sector leaders – humbled at their spirit of service and commitment.

These are just four stories that never make the front pages – but they should.