The work we choose not to do

Lately I’ve come to see much more clearly the myth of my calendar: the myth that there’s a pinnacle of time management that will make everything OK.

It turns out that there isn’t.

The pieces that I’m trying to fit into my day – the articles I am and am not reading; the meetings I am and am not taking; the talks I am and am not giving – are but a tiny, arbitrary swath of the everything that’s out there that I could be doing that might be relevant and useful.

It’s comforting to think that we’re constrained by all the things we’ve already signed up for, when in reality what constrains us is our unwillingness to let people down in service of our higher purpose.

This is why we can look at people who have learned Mandarin in three months, become world-class tango dancers, or completed the Ironman and say, “Sure, they can do that, but that’s because they have the freedom to spend their time that way.”

This is also why we talk about the changes we’d like to make aspirationally, even wistfully: “Someday [when I’m a perfect person] I’m going to…..” […speak up more in meetings. …start working on that long-term project without anyone’s permission. …sleep enough every night…be courageous…stand up to my boss…learn to code.]  It’s just another way of hiding, since we know that we’ll never be that perfect person.

The real issue is our unwillingness to let people down, our unwillingness to bear the brunt of the ensuing disappointment from people we like and respect in service of something more important.

One way to start a new conversation is to ask ourselves: what would make the way we’re currently behaving intolerable to us? What shift would have to happen to make the things we’d like to ‘someday’ become the things we have to do today? What would have to change so that we have no choice but to start doing the work that WE have, until now, chosen not to do?

The first person we have to be willing to break an old contract with is ourselves.

Everyone a fundraiser

A colleague of mine – someone who has never been a formal part of Acumen’s fundraising team but who has done a good deal of fundraising  – said that a series of recent meetings with new donors reminded her of what it means to raise money.  She said:

The act of fundraising changes you, it changes your perspective.  When you sit there and look someone in the eye, it forces you to do two things.  First, you have to have your story straight: what are we doing and why, what are the details, how do all of the pieces hold together?  More important, though, is the sense of accountability you have to that donor when you’ve had that conversation.  You’ve made a promise to them, and knowing that changes you and makes you want to work harder than ever to deliver for them.

Exactly.

There’s something real about face-to-face, personal fundraising that I don’t experience anywhere else – not online or with social media or crowdfunding platforms, not in institutional fundraising or grant-writing (even in situations where you have strong personal relationships).  When someone gives their personal money, when someone sits down and writes a personal check to your organization, it creates a deep connection.  If you choose to see it and experience it, that sense of accountability can be internalized – first for you and, over time, into your organization.  In that personal connection and experience, you have the chance, long after that meeting, to transform yourself into an agent for that donor – not literally to do everything they would do (because they’ve given to you because of what you do and know, because of the perspective and professional judgment you bring to the table) but to give them a seat at the table, an important spot in your mind and in your heart.

Our opportunity is to have everyone who does this work be a fundraiser.  Not their full-time job. But why would we pass up the opportunity to get at least a glimpse of the sense of ownership, discipline, and, yes, obligation it creates?

You, Me, We

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.”  It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.

Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.

In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements.  Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”

Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far.  “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”

In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change.  In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting.  We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.

There’s no “we” but you and me.

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?

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?

What should I do, boss?

A typical email:

Dear Boss,

Here are all the things going on with this project.   And also this.  Plus there’s this other thing we need to keep in mind.  This too, which is really important.  And I’m worried about this.

What should we do?

Employee

When you’re about to ask your boss to make a call on something, it’s worth stopping for a moment and asking what you’re doing and why.  You have the most information, usually, so the questions you might ask yourself are:

1.       Am I actually worse at making decisions than my boss?

2.       Do I not have the authority to make decisions?

3.       Or is neither of the above true and am I just avoiding responsibility for making a call?

The kicker is, the more you go ahead and decide stuff for yourself, the better you get at making decisions and the more authority you get (if this doesn’t happen, go work for someone else.)

Yes, sometimes you don’t know and/or you really need a thought partner, but I’d guess that happens 1 out of 5 times, maybe 1 out of 10 times, not most of the time.