The Easiest Money I’ve Ever Given Away

The easiest money I’ve ever given away was the day after my wallet was returned to me, untouched and full of cash.

Having done the mental work of literally imagining living without that money, it was easy to see the request to give money away as a simple reminder: “Ah, yes, this money isn’t mine after all.”

The practice of giving is just that, a practice. And like any practice, it is in the act of doing that the behavior becomes normal, expected, and part of our lives – not the other way around. The practice of giving is how we pound away at the mold of who we are. We exert effort and willpower until the very material of our selves begins to yield and take on a new shape.

Part of that reshaping manifests in a new story we tell ourselves, a story about how to think about our wealth and our skills and our possessions and the choices we can make about how to deploy all of them – maybe, just maybe – to reshape the world into the better image we dare to imagine.

Over time, we also discover that, in the act of starting to show up differently in the world, the world starts to show up differently in us. In the act of trying to shape the world in a new way, the world sneaks up on us and starts to reshape us too. If we are very lucky, both of those transformations will be for the better.

Today Acumen is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary, and in a couple of months I will hit my 10-year anniversary at Acumen. Looking back, it’s easy be misled by the small, nearly imperceptible daily changes we have made in the world and that the world has made on us. But looked at from the vantage point of a decade, or a decade and half, it’s obvious that the changes are both profound and lasting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time, it’s that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work. It also helps tremendously to have people who are willing to show up alongside you, people who are willing to pour their best selves into a shared vision about what is possible.

To all the people who have been willing to show up alongside me, and to all the people who have shaped me in ways that I hope you know (but I bet you don’t know fully): thank you.

A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

Anand Giridharadas – The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You

If you’re ready to ask yourself the real, hard questions – and if you want to arm yourself with the language to speak truth to power – I strongly recommend you watch the keynote speech Anand Giridharadas gave at the The Aspen Institute last week.

If you don’t know Anand, he is a journalist and author, most recently of The True American, the amazing story of a Bangladeshi immigrant, Raisuddin Bhuiyan, who was shot in the face by a white Texan, nearly died, and then fought to keep his shooter from getting the death penalty.

Anand’s talk pushes all of us to move beyond accepting change that comes from the system and, in so doing, preserves the system. He asks us to ask ourselves, and those around us, whether generosity is enough or if what we seek is justice. And, if it is justice we seek, how much are we willing to do and how much are we willing to give up to get it?

Here’s an excerpt that gets to the heart of Anand’s talk, the full transcript of the talk, and the video is below.

…we are at risk of confusing generosity towards those victims with justice for those victims. Generosity is a win-win. Justice, often, is not.

The winners of our age don’t enjoy the idea that some of them might actually have to lose, to sacrifice, for justice to be done. In Aspen you don’t hear a lot of ideas involving the privileged and powerful actually being in the wrong, and needing to surrender their status and position for the sake of justice. We talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less. We talk a lot here about what we should be doing more of. We don’t talk about what we should be doing less of.

Nipun Mehta on The Radical Power of Humility

I was deeply moved by Nipun Mehta’s talk from last week, The Radical Power of Humility. Nipun has been leading a life of radical generosity for a few years now, and as I’ve watched his writing unfold over these years the wisdom he is accumulating is palpable.

Nipun begins:

Today I’d like to surface an unpopular virtue, one that’s fallen out of favor in a time of selfies and relentless status updates. The virtue of humility. We live in an era that believes it can no longer afford to be humble.

The power in Nipun’s talk comes through the stories of people he meets in his travels, and others who have walked this path before him – a nameless boy in a village in rural India who tells the story of a sparrow trying to hold up the sky; two Buddhist monks, Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Chau, who walked 900 miles up the California coast bowing their heads to the ground every three feet; the 96-year-old Suffi saint Dada Vaswani who speaks to Nipun about the power of being small, simple nobodies. And then Nipun slams you over the head with facts that put the rising tide of our collective narcissism in stark relief: according to the Google database of 5.2 million books published from 1960 to 2008, “individualistic words increasingly overshadowed communal ones. The usage of ‘kindness’ and ‘helpfulness’ dropped by 56%, even as ‘modesty’ and ‘humbleness’ dropped by 52%.” Ouch.

Nipun’s talk flips the notion of humility on its head, challenging us to recognize that in becoming small, in becoming humble, we become powerful and great. He reminds us of the words of Sikh guru Arjan Dev who offered this credo to his warriors: “Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody’s feet is my sword. No evil can withstand that.”

In a world obsessed by power, in a world where even philanthropy (the act of giving!) is so often infused with perverse power dynamics – whether between the philanthropist and the receiving charity, or between the charity and the beneficiary – Nipun’s is a radical voice. And while the humble man does not need, or want, to be celebrated, the trait of humility need more advocates and more practitioners. It should not be rare hear someone extol the virtues of bearing witness, of expressing gratitude, of making ourselves smaller so we can really, truly shine a light on others.

We underestimate how what we do affects those around us.  Indeed, there’s a growing body of research showing the power our behavior has on others. As Nipun reminds us, happiness spreads virally, through personal networks, and so does obesity, cancer, and even divorce rates. We are apparently 2.5 times as likely to get divorced if we have divorced friends!

We should see these facts as a radical call to action. How do we make change? We start with ourselves. Through our attitudes, our own practice of humility, our own daily ritual of appreciation and generosity, we can see others, lift them up, and, in the process, transform them.

I hope you are as touched by Nipun’s words as I was, and that Nipun’s practice inspires you as it has inspired me.  Thank you Nipun, as always, for your words of inspiration.

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.”