Impact: The Future is Now (Take 2)

Something strange happened with the embedded YouTube video in my last post for email subscribers.

Until I figure that out, here it is again:

impact future is now

 

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Impact: The Future Is Now

One of my greatest points of pride from 2014 is how far we have come at Acumen in how we think about and measure impact. So much of the talk in impact investing feels stalled on the question of whether to measure impact, and we’ve spent almost no time or energy, as a sector, on the HOW of measuring impact. I believe if we get this how right, we can measure impact in a way that makes sense for entrepreneurs and brings us real and real-time insight into customers and how we are meeting their needs.

In this talk at Acumen’s Partner Gathering from November, I share my thoughts on how we can break through the logjam in measuring impact by changing our perspective about about what impact measurement really is (hint: it’s about customer insights) and by using new tools and techniques (hint #2: mobile phones, call centers) to gather data.

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Bryan Stevenson – Proximity

The other day, I had the honor and privilege to hear Bryan Stevenson speak in a small group setting. Bryan is a lawyer and a fighter for justice and racial equality, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative who has a list of accolades and awards too long to tackle properly.

Among other things, his TED talk, which has been viewed more than two million times, apparently got the “longest and loudest standing ovation in TED history”; he’s recently written a book that I’ve just bought called Just Mercy (it has a 4.9 out of 5 star rating on Amazon); he will be arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in March about mandatory sentencing; and he has received the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) highest honor, the National Medal of Liberty.

In addition to being a true fighter for rights and justice, someone who is living on the front lines every day, Bryan is one of the most compelling, articulate, and inspiring speakers I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Bryan is an orator, someone who weaves together structure and narrative, deep intellect and cutting analysis, all shared through poignant and often heart-wrenching stories. The man is a gift to the world.

Bryan talked about four things that need to happen to create social change:

  1. Proximity.
    Simple as it sounds, Bryan argues that the first thing we have to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes. When we see what Bryan sees (or whatever other issue we choose to see), we will, in Bryan’s estimation, have no choice but to act. As important, Bryan reminds us, the only solutions that work are the ones that are developed when one has an up-close view of a problem.
  2. Changing the narrative. This was a specific point that Bryan was making about the narrative of racial injustice in the US – What is really going on, Brain asks us, when, say, a 14 year old black boy lashes out and throws a book at a teacher? Is the solution to incarcerate that child or to ask what happens to a child who has lived for 14 years surrounded by violence? – but I believe this point is universal. For nearly all issues there’s an unspoken but powerful story that fortifies the status quo.
  3. Keep hopeful. We give up on issues that we believe are hopeless, wrongs that we tell ourselves simply cannot be righted. In Bryan’s words, “injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
  4. Do uncomfortable things. (Bryan admitted, each of his four steps gets harder and harder.) What I heard here is Bryan saying out loud that we simply cannot make real and lasting change if we stay comfortable. Whether it is the people who led or joined the civil rights movement (or any other movement that created large-scale change), each and every person made a decision at a critical juncture that they were willing to be uncomfortable and put themselves on the line.

All of these points deserve to be printed and pasted up on our walls as daily reminders of the work we have to do.

And when I take a big step back, what strikes me is that one of the most pernicious and unseen problems of our runaway economic inequality is the reduction in proximity. While it is easier than ever to feel that the world is more global than ever, more connected than ever, in reality it is easier than ever to separate: to see only the news we’ve told Google we like to read, to get updates only from Facebook friends, to live in houses and neighborhoods and go to hotels (whether here or 5,000 miles away) that are only for “people like us…,” to tell ourselves a story of connection and globalization and democratization of information when really we walk around surrounded by bubbles that we refuse to pop, insulating ourselves from anything really, truly foreign.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the momentum towards greater economic inequality will lessen any time soon, but one of the things that Bryan’s talk made me wonder is whether we would have more leverage in creating change if we worked directly on this question of proximity, and on creating productive pathways to action that, together with that proximity, help people start doing useful work more quickly.

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Bhava Yoga, then and now

Over the holidays, I went with my family up to Okemo, Vermont for four days of skiing. It was a little icy for the first few days, but we had a great trip.

As an experiment in family travel management, we decided to break up the drive with a quick overnight stop in Brattleboro, VT. One of our great parenting discoveries is that any hotel with a pool and free waffles for breakfast is, according to the kids, “totally awesome,” so we stay at a lot of Hampton Inns on family vacations.

Weeks after we’d made this plan, my wife reminded me that Peter Rizzo, a master yoga teacher whose classes we used to take on the Lower East Side of New York City, had moved his studio to Brattleboro a number of years ago. Could we arrange things so that one or both of us could take a class with Peter during our 18 hours in Brattleboro?

Somehow, it worked out. Last Sunday we left New York around 1:30pm and managed to pull into Brattleboro at 4:50pm, ten minutes before Peter’s 5pm class. My wife spilled out of the car and went up to Peter’s two-hour class while I took the kids to the (tiny, cold) pool at the Hampton Inn. That class was so great that I then took Peter’s 9am class the next morning.

Peter is an exceptional yoga teacher on a number of levels. Yes, he’s technically amazing, but what really matters is that he keeps you calm and helps you get to a non-striving place, with great reminders like (after putting you into a crazy poze) “just by looking at how far you do or don’t get into hanumanasana (full split) I could tell nothing at all about how advanced your yoga practice is. In fact, I can tell you from my personal experience that there’s no relationship between how close my head gets to my shin and how enlightened I am.”

Indeed.

Time works in funny ways, and when my wife and I spoke to Peter that Sunday evening after the 5pm class, he remembered that we used to go to Bhava Yoga when it was on East 13th street. We said it was “a while ago,” and he said, “Yes, that was 11 years ago.” Where did the time go?

Though our interaction with Peter was fleeting, there was something special in that moment of reconnection. Peter gave each of us the gift of a deep, grounding, inspiring yoga class, and a glimpse of the community he has created. There was also something pensive and reflective – and perhaps even a flicker of pride – in Peter’s eyes as he contemplated the 11 years since we’d last seen him, the logistics we must have managed to make the class happen (the drive, the kids). What I hope he understood was that, even though we’d taken no more than 30 classes with him so many years ago, he was a part of our lives and he had made a lasting impact on us. I hope that, in seeing us, we helped him realize how many other people there are out there in the world, some of whom he hasn’t seen for a decade or more, who he’s also impacted in profound ways.

I think this is how it is for all of us: we hear back only a fraction of the ways that we have touched people, moved them, inspired them, and lifted them up when they were down. But that impact is out there, it is real, and it is our living legacy.

One of the easiest gifts to give is to find the opportunities to remind people how important they have been to us, and to thank them for it.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your year in 2015.

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On Behalf of Me

With just a week to go until the New Year, now is the time to reflect on 2014 and to thank those around us for all the help and support they have brought to us and to others.

It is also a big time for online donations. For reasons that have something to do with the tax deadline but more to do with ritual and habit, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and especially December 30th and 31st, are the biggest days all year for online donations. Naturally, our inboxes are flooded with some combination of “thank you’s” and “it’s your last chance to give.”

I am happy to receive the subset of these emails that are from people I actually know or from people who are thanking me for things I actually did.

What drives me bonkers are the emails from organizations, emails that have no name attached to them and where I cannot reply and get to an actual, identifiable human being on the other end. I don’t want to be thanked by an organization, asked for anything from an organization, or wished happy holidays on behalf of anyone but a real, living, breathing person.

It may feel overwhelming to imagine the logistics of hearing back from, and then having to reply to, the too-many people who might respond to your email. But then it’s time to ask whether it makes sense to send that email in the first place. Any correspondence you initiate in which getting a response from the recipient will be a problem and not an opportunity….well, that isn’t a correspondence, it’s spam.

To get tactical for a second, there are four places where your name can (or cannot) show up in the emails you send:

  1. The “From” name that appears in someone’s email client
  2. The associated email address
  3. The name that is signed at the bottom of the email
  4. The email address that comes up when someone hits reply to your note (not always the same as #2)

At least three of these four should be names of living, breathing, human beings.  And I should never, ever hit “reply” and have the To: field read anything like us3-a22c2dfe-1779e987@conversation01.mailchimpapp.com

On behalf of me, and only me, happy holidays.

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Individual and Institutional Fundraising

Over the past six months, a greater proportion of the fundraising I’ve been doing has been institutional rather than individual. By “institutional” I mean fundraising from people who have been charged with donating somebody else’s money – whether or not it’s a formal, recognized institution (e.g. a large private foundation, a corporation, etc.).

In both individual and institutional fundraising, there’s a strategic element and a people element. The strategic conversations are around goals and outcomes and what success looks like. The people element is around what motivates a person to take action – the story and the emotional elements that move people to act, as well as the interpersonal dynamics that are always at play.

The one thing that is missing from these institutional conversations, which easy to miss if you’ve not experienced it directly, is a deep, personal element. In my experience, real, substantive conversations about real, substantive philanthropy nearly always get personal: they touch on motivations, hopes and fears, aspirations, and legacy.

These conversations require something different from the person doing the fundraising: a comfort getting into that murky space where they, too, are more open, honest, and vulnerable than would ever be expected in a purely professional context.

My hunch is that the reason most people don’t wade deep into individual, big-ticket fundraising is either because they don’t understand how deeply personal these conversations have to be, or they are unwilling or unsuccessful at going there. This means that if you have the courage to take that leap, along with openness to do the real work that this leap requires – to learn about yourself, to understand your own motivations for doing this work, to help people talk about their own purpose – you’ll soon be part of a very small group of people willing to take it to another level. This path is a heavy lift, a long walk that requires emotional labor and has the potential for a serious personal and professional payoff.

Of course your other option is to sit safely at a desk replying to yet another formal request for proposal, hoping that your program will be the one out of 1,000 that’s picked out of the pile.

This is one of the greatest blend-in or stand-out opportunities in the nonprofit sector.

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Disney or Paris?

I recently came back from my first four-day vacation with my family at Disney / Universal in Orlando. It was a lot of fun.

On our last day, I was eating lunch with my three kids at The Three Broomsticks, the favorite haunt of witches and wizards at Hogsmeade (the town next to Hogwarts in Harry Potter, for those few of you who didn’t read all those books and see all of those movies). Our section of the restaurant suddenly hushed when three sparrows dive-bombed across the hall and perched on the fireplace.

Everyone started tittering and pointing, asking, “Are those birds real?!”

So much of what happens at Disney and Universal is about making fantasy seem like reality.   So, in that world, one has to notice three sparrows and wonder if they we real. If they weren’t, it was an impressive effect and a fabulous little detail. And if they were real…well, when was the last time people stopped to notice three sparrows and have a conversation about them?

What is real, and what are the stories we create?

At Epcot, strolling between the pavilions representing France, Mexico, China, the United States and Morocco, it is easy to critique the whole experience as a poor facsimile of the “real” countries. But is it really that different? True, the cheap bangles and jewelry at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion are mostly made in China, but these days so are the cheap bangles sold on the streets of India (or Morocco, I assume.).

Better, how do I make sense of my recent shopping trip to an outdoor market in Hyderabad where I found a nice white blouse that I was considering buying for my wife, until I noticed the label: Eileen Fisher. The stall was stocked with returned seconds of clothing from the United States, Indian-styled clothes made in Bangladesh or Thailand or Pakistan that didn’t hit U.S. manufacturing standards and had made their way back to a street market in Hyderabad.   It kind of makes your head spin.

In a globalized world, what is real and what is fake?

My kids wanted to know whether the French brasserie at Epcot was “like a real French restaurant” and my wife and I were stumped. Yes, it looked and felt mostly like a French brasserie, especially the fresh baguettes, which were delicious, the décor, which looked right, and the staff, which was all French. The real question is, isn’t the “real” French brasserie just a rendition of something that once was? A brasserie in Paris is “real,” of course, and it is also an emblem of a fading, more homogenous France, a whiter, more upper-middle class version of the “real” France of today. Today’s real France is a traditional brasserie, but it’s also an Algerian pastry shop with a French twist; it’s the swanky 6th Arrondissement and the hard immigrant life of the banlieuesIn the end, Epcot’s France is just as unreal as a France where most people pretend that the Africans and Arabs who represent an increasing portion of the French population can persist indefinitely on the periphery of Paris and on the periphery of French identity.

This same story is playing out everywhere. Last week Chris Rock wrote a blistering essay in the Hollywood Reporter on how white Hollywood is. It’s an incredible read – honest, wildly smart and incisive – and it paints a tough picture of a supposedly progressive city. There are far too many quotable lines in Rock’s essay, but just to give you a feel for it:

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist…just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else….

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.

Find 10 minutes to read the Chris Rock piece, and you won’t look at movies the same way again.

The tug and pull of the next century is going to be between the possibility of connection – with products and information flowing seamlessly from anywhere to anywhere – and the increasing ease of creating a fantasy world that isolates and separate us. And it’s the most powerful and influential who are both the most global and who run the risk of complete separation from anyone unlike themselves (where “like themselves” means uber-rich.)

[For kicks: in another story out of L.A., the mega-millionaires are forming a sort of homeowners association that is striking out against the billionaires, including a Saudi prince, whose 70,000 square foot homes are, supposedly, ruining the neighborhood.]

And so we find ourselves back at the American pavilion at Epcot, which is next door to the Mexican pavilion but has no hope of capturing the story of the nearly 1/5th of Americans who are Hispanic. Is Epcot’s American pavilion any different from Ferguson, a town with a 94% white police force and a population that is 67% black?

After a while I ended up feeling like Disney or Universal aren’t any more real or fake than anywhere else, and, if anything, Disney wins for being upfront about being a fantasy world that is trying to create fantasy. In fact, for some things, like Harry Potter, Disney is actually more real than other places: there is no more real representation of Hogsmeade, or Diagon Alley, or Gringotts than in the pages of a book, on the big screen, and in a little corner of Orlando.

And the world outside? Increasingly, it is the world of those sparrows in Hogsmeade. The birds were definitely real birds. The world around them is both completely real and completely the narrative we choose to see.

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