That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Mass protests, surgical precision, the right message

While I’m no expert in DC politics or protest movements, it feels impossible to do anything other than reflect on what’s happed in the US over the last few days, and try to make sense of how best to fight a new Administration that shows such blatant and unmitigated disrespect for anything other than its own ill-informed, hate-filled views. (Warning: this post will ramble more than most.)

To start, I’m struck and inspired by the power of the mass protests that broke out. This weekend’s demonstrations at airports around the US were both immediate and spontaneous, which made me feel, happily, that public, large-scale resistance will be the new normal.  A new standard of civic engagement would be a great thing in both the short-term (holding the line on policies) and the long-term (by creating a much more engaged and empowered population). This, combined with the ACLU’s immediate and effective actions that resulted in a nearly-immediate judicial response, is a template for future resistance.

Second, while mass protest is one important ingredient, we must remember, in the midst of our passion and our outrage, to keep our wits about us. While there are nuances of the inner workings of power and politics in DC that are foreign to me, one thing that has to happen is for a small number of elected Republican officials to feel that the cost of supporting unacceptable and un-American policies is too high (whether they take a stand because of principles or pragmatism doesn’t matter much). We must identify these individuals, understand what motivates them to act, and then engage in the actions that directly raise the cost of continuing to play along with the current nonsense. This is the kind of surgical precision that could quickly limit the power of the Executive Branch.

And third, the message. Hillary was ultimately brought down by a simple and repeatable storyline that had to do with an email server, Bengazi, and “corruption” at the Clinton Foundation. There might have been additional details, but the message that the people on the fence repeated to me was always short and simple. One risk in taking on the current administration is to be sucked into each individual battle while losing sight of a simple, repeatable counter-narrative that has just 3-5 headlines, not a hundred. “Alternative facts” feels like it’s already on the short list just a week in. What else will be the defining narrative that the opposition writes of this administration?

Beyond these three ideas, a few other reflections from this weekend, with no attempt to connect them to each other:

  • Steve Bannon is clearly Emperor Palpatine to Trump’s Darth Vader. Palpatine lurked in the shadows, was nearly all-powerful, and was always strategic. Vader was the figurehead, but he was flawed, stunted in his development, and he never showed much subtlety. But Palpatine was the guy who was really in charge. Whenever this administration does something outrageous, one must come up with a “why” on the assumption that there was a reason. So, while I wasn’t surprised, given Bannon’s record of anti-Semitism, that the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day excluded mention of Jews, I let myself be outraged and forgot (until today) to think about the “why” behind it. Was this an intentional anti-Semitic nod to Bannon’s/Trump alt-right base? Was it part of a storyline that they’ll also create against Black Lives Matter? Did it have to do with Israel? An angry response isn’t good enough, we must understand the motives behind the actions if we are to respond effectively. (Similarly, why did the Administration include, against the advice of counsel, green card holders in the Muslim travel ban? Maybe it was a mistake and the protests were unexpected, but it could just as easily have been an intentional strategy so that the pull-back – which still leaves the US with a policy that’s both stupid and un-American – looks good by comparison).
  • I think it’s possible that a lot of good people just don’t know enough Muslims well enough to understand that this feels like an attack on all Muslims, especially those living in the US who woke up on Sunday feeling less safe and more fearful. A Muslim friend shared how Muslim friends of hers living in the Midwest, surrounded by a sea of Trump supporters were feeling more isolated than ever. It made me wonder if the appropriate response – if you have the strength for it– is to find a kind, good Trump supporter and speak to them in personal terms about how quickly what it feels like to be Muslim in America has changed. It’s a lot harder to spout generalized hatred when a person you know and like says, “This is what this feels like to me.” My personal experience is that, as a Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened in the U.S. in the 1940s are chilling. And while I don’t yet personally feel less safe today, the line that I felt was crossed this weekend was one in which the President of the United States communicated wholesale prejudice against an entire religion and, in so doing, validated that kind of thinking and that mindset for millions of his supporters. This was underlined for me in the seven horrible minutes I spent reading David Duke’s Twitter feed this weekend, which, outside of making me feel physically ill, gave me a glimpse of a bile that I naively thought was no longer tolerated in modern America and which now seems like it being given voice by the President of the United States of America and his staff. This is terrifying and it threatens the very foundation of our democracy and the values upon which this country was founded.

And finally, my favorite sign from the weekend.

first-they-came-for-the-muslims

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

I’m sorry

You might have noticed that apologies don’t need to happen just once.

The first time, the words can catch in your throat. You might sound a bit defensive, even reluctant, a bit like the little kid who looks at the ground, mumbling almost unintelligibly as his parent nudges him forward to say “sorry.” What’s going on is either that you don’t fully believe your own words, or you sense that the person you’re speaking to isn’t totally ready to hear you.

The second time you apologize, you’ve gotten past the noise in your head (“I’m not the only one who did something wrong!”) and the self-congratulations (“I’m such a martyr”) and started to get in touch with real feelings. As these feelings of remorse start to be visible, you begin to build an emotional bridge between you and another person.

And the third time, well, the third time you are fully grounded in the truth of the wrong you’ve done, the hurt you’ve inflicted, the unnecessary slight, and you can match those feelings to the words you say and to how you say them. When that comes out, you can truly apologize and begin to set things right.

Of course there’s nothing special about apologies. This is the way it goes with any communication that has real, challenging emotional content, including expressions of humility, gratitude, requests for help, even communicating the joy and hopeful enthusiasm you have for a job you want, joy that is often buried beneath layers of seemingly-appropriate responses.

There are no shortcuts to expressing your emotional truth. There’s just the progressive work of discovering it, and then having the courage to reveal it.

Sorry.

Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”

How to Respond to Tragedy: On the Front Lines of Hope

We’ve just witnessed the largest mass shooting in US history.

I wish this fact made me feel like the worst of this is behind us. But it doesn’t.

On days like today it is hard to feel like the world is getting safer and less violent, but that’s what the numbers tell us. If we are in fact riding a wave pulling us towards peace and prosperity, there’s also an undertow that we must fight against. Whether it’s U.S. citizens like Omar Mateen pledging allegiance to ISIS to justify mass murder, or simply the daily drumbeat of tragic gun deaths that go unnoticed — on an average day in the U.S., 91 people are killed with guns — the cocktail of fear, ignorance, hatred, bias and easy access to firearms is a deadly one.

Omar Mateen’s hateful, senseless killing reminds us what’s at stake. It reminds us of the push and pull between freedom and security, the tug between hope and fear, the real fight over what the future will hold.

Each of you reading is this is, in some way, engaged in this fight. You are working to support others and improve their lives. You are giving to organizations that are sources of light in today’s darkness. You have committed yourselves to a world in which hatred and senseless violence will never be the norm.

Our only choice, in the midst of grief, is to recommit ourselves to this work: perhaps not to work harder, but to take it all a bit more personally. When we put ourselves on the line a bit more, when we take just a bit more risk — personally, professionally, emotionally, spiritually — we push the boundaries of the change we are making in the world, and in so doing we inspire others to greater heights.

Yesterday morning a colleague reminded the Acumen team of the wisdom of one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. The backdrop of her celebrated memoir about writing, Bird by Bird, were words of her father to her then 10-year-old brother

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Our only choice, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task — like the task of pushing against a wall of vitriol and fear — is to start.

Here’s to the work you are doing to create light in the darkness.

And here’s to the memory of those who never should have been slain.

The Hardest Thing

It isn’t figuring out how to solve the problem,

or deciding what approach will work best.

It isn’t sussing out what tactics to use,

or who will be your partners and your competitors.

It’s not figuring out product-market fit,

and it isn’t even hammering out how you’re going to convince skeptics of your story.

The hardest thing is figuring out what’s really important to you.

The things you want to work for.

The things that are worth sustained energy and sacrifice.

It’s the act of clearing away the dross, of quieting the voices that are the noise, not signal, streaming through your head.

The moment you state your goal is the moment you can’t hide from it.

It’s the moment you have to stop pretending that you don’t know exactly what it is that you are here to do.