Twenty Two Oh Five

Yesterday night at bedtime, my son handed me this envelope.


Earlier this year I visited with his Fifth Grade class and had a 90 minute discussion about Acumen. If you ever want to figure out how to explain what you do simply and clearly, I strongly recommend talking to a group of 5th graders. You’ll have to boil everything down to its essence in a great way.

I was blown away by how sophisticated and prepared the kids were: having 5th graders in a nice suburb of New York City ask me how things are going with the rice gassifiers that Husk Power Systems runs in Bihar gave me a lot of hope for the world.

What I didn’t know, until last night, was that a few of my son’s classmates took it upon themselves to raise money for Acumen as a thank you. They self-organized and went around to other classes in the school, talking about Acumen and asking kids to bring in bottles they would return for the 5 cent deposits.

So the $22.05 represents 441 bottles that 5th graders collected and returned because they wanted to help people they’ve never met who have less than they do.

The feeling I had upon receiving this envelope reminded of one of the most powerful impacts that fundraising can have on you. When someone you trust and respect shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and agrees to give you their hard-earned money to support the work you do…well, I find that moment always motivates me to do the work harder and better, to do right by them and to earn the trust that they are placing in me and in my team.

To know the work that these kids went through – learning about Acumen, courageously going up to their friends and asking them to bring bottles from home, having those kids then go home and explain the same story to their parents – makes me want to work twice as hard and twice as smart.

I hope this story inspires you as much as it’s inspired me.

What would be fabulous is if more kids choose to do a similar project – to collect and turn in 441 bottles to support Acumen or another cause of their choice.

If they want to, let me know how I can help.


Walking in the Rain

I’ll admit it, I’m terrible at checking the weather. It’s just not part of my morning routine. So, even though I spend 30 minutes a day walking to and from the train and to my office, more often than is reasonable I end up trudging through a downpour as everyone around me pops open their umbrellas.

So the starting point here is that it’s on me.

That said, the other day, while I walked home from the train in the leafy suburb I call home, the rain turned from steady to torrential. I was apparently one of few people who was surprised by this turn of events, since, as I got out of the train, the line of cars waiting to pick up passengers was 30 deep rather than the usual 5 to 10.

As I slowly made my way up the hill, my light blue shirt having turned a deep shade of violet from the downpour, I scanned the lineup of cars, looking for a familiar face. And, when it became clear that I didn’t know any of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder: is anyone going to give me a wave and a nod and offer me a warm dry seat?

Apparently not.

Why does no one roll down the window to help? To boil it down, how we act in these situations is the result of our assessment of four things:

  1. How dire is the need of the person?
  2. What is the perceived social cost and benefit of action?
  3. How much do I perceive that I, and I alone, am responsible for taking an action?
  4. In the story I tell myself about myself, how do I act in these sorts of situations?

Put this way, it’s pretty clear why I got drenched on my walk home: my need was far from dire (it’s just a bit of rain); it is mildly socially awkward to invite someone in to your car; lots of people could help so we have a Kitty Genovese situation (bystander effect) going on; and….well, what about #4?

This last one – the story we tell ourselves about “how do I act in situations where I have the opportunity to help?” – this strikes me as the wildly unaddressed leverage point for anyone in the social change business.

Since launching my Generosity Experiment in 2008 I’ve been trying to understand what it takes to unlock the sense, in myself and in others, that in situations where help can be given, more of us will be the kind of people who chose to act.

While this is lifelong work, as I trudged through the rain I reflected on some of the things I think I’ve learned so far:

That everyone starts in a different place, and that these starting points come first and foremost from the values we were taught at a young age.

That there are real, powerful social norms that hold us back from acting.

That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting.

That one of the most important jobs that social groups perform is to tilt these norms in favor of care of others….and that, as these social norms become weaker as societies modernize, and as we hide behind our screens, car windows, and devices more and more, it is the job of new actors to set a new set of norms.

That, for those folks who routinely do more than the least that’s expected of them, their work began with a decision it’s not enough just to believe we all have the same potential. What’s required is living that belief through actions.

That part of the story we need to tell ourselves is that it (whatever “it” is) is up to us, not to someone else.

That, like everything else in life, the first step towards living more generously is the belief in and commitment to making a change in ourselves. It is in that moment of decision, and in the actions that reaffirm that decision, that we open up a new conversation about who we are and what we can become.

That there’s a profound sense of alone-ness in the world, and that finding moments to break through by creating a personal connection is one of the most powerful things we can do.

And, like everything else in life, we must find the balance of pushing ourselves to be better and forgiving ourselves for our limitations today.

In the end, I didn’t mind so much getting wet – my kids certainly didn’t seem to care when they ran to greet me as I got home.

Plus, if I am honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I’d have opened my door for me walking by. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And yes, I’m also working on remembering to bring an umbrella.



What I Learned About Generosity From the Eight Foot Bride

I still remember the feeling I had watching Amanda Palmer’s mezmorizing TED talk, as she described the gentle, intimate moment of handing a flower to a stranger while dressed as a silent, 8-foot bride, busking in Harvard Square.

If that talk was the distilled essence of her experience of love, crowdfunding, trust and connection, her book, The Art of Asking, feels like an exposed, magically cluttered, painful but beautifully honest version of everything that led up to that 13-minute essence of the story.

While Amanda and I are, in the most obvious ways, very different people, I felt a profound sense of connection in her exploration of generosity. In fairness, Amanda’s life is an extreme sports version of trust, generosity and connection, one that makes me wonder if I’m still wading in the shallow end, but the essence of the exploration is the same.

This essence is conveyed beautifully in a passage Amanda quotes from the Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

So much of what we are all searching for is real-ness, a sense of seeing and being seen by others. We become real through others, though being willing to break ourselves open and be seen in all of our humanity.

True generosity, then, is not about helping someone else. It is about seeing someone, about meeting them eye to eye, about letting them see us too, and maybe, as Amanda does, handing them a flower. This is why true generosity makes us feel so exposed and vulnerable: because in that act of generosity, we are our most unadorned and our most human.

If we are going to be in the changing the world business – I don’t care if it’s as a fundraiser, a rock star, a philanthropist, or an eight-foot bride – the first prerequisite is our willingness to show up, as Amanda does, with our whole humanity. Social change work begins with a decision to really see the world, and to do this properly we must be willing to be fully present, to connect, to see today’s limitations and tomorrow’s possibilities and, finally and most importantly, to embrace the emotional labor of trying to make a change happen.

The Art of Asking is a portrait of an artist with a deep commitment to showing up as her true self, and her fierce determination to stay open to making real connections – often with total strangers.

The moment she, you or I stand with this kind of real-ness, this kind of grounded passion, this kind of openness, people have no choice but to connect with us in a different way. Not all of them. Not even most of them (that’s where the hurt comes in).  But some of them will see us, just as we truly see them, and in that moment, we both will be transformed.

“When you connect with them,” Amanda Palmer says, “people want to help you.”


The pavement on the cross-streets between 9th and 7th avenues between 14th and 23rd streets have been stripped for the past month. The first step here is milling, which takes off the top layer of asphalt in preparation for repaving, and, maybe because the city is in the midst of filling nearly 300,000 potholes, these streets have remained exposed and bumpy for weeks.

Here’s what it’s looked like.


In these few weeks, we’ve gotten to see what lies underneath: layers of patching, the old covering of potholes, extra asphalt around manholes. Sometimes even the cobblestone, which must be nearly 100 years old, is exposed, making me wonder if any more paving lies between that and the sewer system.

It’s a hodgepodge that’s been built up, layer by layer, over decades, one that we rarely see.

It is easy to be fooled by the thin veneer, the smooth top layer that is so easy to glide across. This layer fools us into thinking that it came into being fully formed. But of course everything builds on what came before it, on what lies below.

In seeing all this I’m reminded of the grimy past of New York City, of a time of dirt and struggle and disease, a time when this neighborhood was the home to slaughterhouses and slop in the streets, not fashion boutiques and 16 Handles.  Today’s glossy world sits adopt that messy history, one we are quick to forget at our peril.

I can’t help wondering how it’s come to pass that today’s reality feels so normal.  How, in a world where glamor and wealth and radical inequality has become the norm, we manage see only that top layer while ignoring the deeper moral questions that lie beneath: When did we go from building a system that rewards winners to one where the winners, quite literally, take all? And why does it seem so easy to drown out the quiet sound of people throwing up their hands and turning their backs on a system that doesn’t work for them?

Some of this stems, I think, from being fooled by that thin veneer, one that shields us from the fact that our success is not just the product of our own efforts. We literally stand upon decades, even centuries, of groundwork that came before us – times of toil and trouble and near misses that somehow all added up to this life, here and now. The foundation of our comfort, our accomplishment, and our success is our dumb luck of being born into lives in which deploying effort, brains and resources yields results.  That’s a winning lottery ticket held by precious few.

Sure, we deserve credit for our own effort, guts, and ingenuity.  But let’s not forget that we are nothing more than the top layer.

No Soup for You

I was having a light-hearted disagreement with a colleague about the loyalty card programs of the lunch places across the street from Acumen – the cards where you get 10 punches / stamps and get a free lunch. Some of them, like Chelsea Thai, allow you to combine different cards, so if you don’t always have your card with you, you can still get a stamp and combine cards. Others, like Hale & Hearty Soup, have a strict policy: no combining of cards.

The disagreement was whether there’s a meaningful difference between the two.

I discovered the intricacies of the Hale & Hearty stamp card policy a few years back when I showed up with two soup cards, one with 6 stamps and one with 4. Those two cards represented a good deal of concerted soup-eating effort on my part. Proudly, at the front of the line, I presented my two cards only to be told that the policy was “No combining cards.”

No (free) soup for me.

To be clear, I could get a free soup when I presented ONE business-card-sized piece of card stock with 10 little ink stamps on it, but not two separate cards adding up to 10.

From that moment, I stopped collecting Hale & Hearty Soup stamps.

Now, one could easily (and convincingly) argue that it’s not too much to ask that I keep track of that one card. That’s probably true. But I wonder about the culture of an organization that enforces that kind of rule, one where employees cannot make a call to say “yes” to a customer who is showing up and vouching for their own loyalty to your store.

Dov Seidman, author of How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), conducted a survey of 5,000 managers and executives in the US, to understand their values and behaviors. From that survey, he grouped companies into three categories:

Companies in the first group, called “blind obedience,” rely on coercion, formal authority, policing, and top-down command-and-control leadership. The second group, “informed acquiescence” organizations, have clear-cut rules and policies, well-established procedures, and performance-based rewards and punishments — the standards of high-quality 20th-century management. The third group, organizations with “self-governance,” are the most farsighted organizations, best positioned to thrive in an interdependent world. People at all levels of the company are trusted to act on their own initiative and to collaboratively innovate; a shared purpose and common values guide employee and company behavior.

I’d pretty much forgotten about my Hale & Hearty frustrations until last month when, on my way to India, I had a short, groggy layover in London’s Heathrow airport. I found my way to a Pret a Manger, my new favorite London destination, and began searching in vain, amongst the throng of coffee-starved travelers, for oatmeal (“porridge”). I waved and gesticulated a few times to the cashier, asking her where to find it, and she kept on pointing me to the same spot. Then, finally, she stepped out from behind the register, looked for herself, and realized that they were fresh out of porridge.

Immediately upon returning to the counter, she not only apologized to me, she offered me a latte on the house! Her decision was so quick and made with so little hesitation that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was bending the rules or whether, even in such a big chain the front-line employee is given the freedom to delight a customer.

It turns out that this is how Pret works, that their philosophy is all about team and front-line employees and about delighting their customers. Which would be quaint if Pret were a mom n’ pop shop, but in fact it is majority-owned by a private equity firm, it has more than 350 stores, nearly $1 billion in revenues, and it’s growing like gangbusters.

Maybe, just maybe, the follow-all-the-rules-or-you’ll-get-fired approach to management is starting to show its colors as the un-enlightened, underperforming approach it seems to be.   Because while there’s no doubt that most people would rather work somewhere where their job is to make other people happy, we’re starting to see more and more (and more) examples of how the by-the-numbers approaches are revealed for what they truly are: races to the bottom.

Why I (like everyone) gave to ALS while on vacation

A friend and colleague asked me.

It was personal and I didn’t want to let him down.

It was (a little bit of) a challenge to how macho and bold I could be.

It was public.

Turning something like this down, given who I am and my values, would be just a little bit shameful.

Everyone was doing it.

It was fun.

I could talk to my kids about it and get them involved in it.

It was easy and quick to do.

I could share it with friends in a way that felt totally positive – without putting them out. In fact, many friends said “Thank you! I was hoping to be challenged.”

It incorporated video, and allowed me, in 30 seconds, to create a video I was happy to post and that I knew would be entertaining (no edits, no storyboards, no nothing).

Did I mention how fun it was?

That’s a pretty good list to choose from for how you fundraise. I’m positive you won’t hit all of these, but if you’re hitting none of them then you’re pushing a rope uphill.

And the really tricky bits that I can’t stop thinking about are:

I did give to ALS, but most people won’t. That’s totally fine as long as what you create is huge.

The specifics of the organization I was giving to, and the cause, didn’t matter. This would have worked for any cause.

I talked to my kids about ice water not about ALS.

Pretty quickly my head starts to swirl about ends and means, whether (some? all?) philanthropy should be fun and what is lost when it is fun (and what doesn’t happen when it’s not).

When giving is more like eating dessert than it’s like eating your vegetables, is that a problem? Certainly not, today, for the folks suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

(and for those keeping track, the ALS Association has now raised nearly $100 million from 3 million donors…versus about $23 million last year).

What if he’s conning me?

“What if this story this guy is telling me isn’t true? What if he, 70 years old, scraggly hair, sitting in a wheelchair, knee brace on his left leg, with a couple of bags and a book on his lap, didn’t really lose his place in Hurricane Sandy? What if that’s not what pushed him over the edge and shoved him back into a life of homeless shelters and benefits checks that don’t go far enough?”

Sure, that goes through my head.

But as I stand there listening I cannot help but stand face-to-face with my own good fortune, all the challenges I don’t face every day, all the barriers that aren’t in my way.

So, instead, I endeavor to think, “maybe this is a chance to help. Maybe a little bit will make a difference. Maybe experiencing the indignity of asking for money on the subway is something that this articulate guy shouldn’t have to go through.”

Maybe the chance to help even a little is a chance worth taking.