Living up to the gift

It’s December, which means that nonprofit end-of-year fundraising is in full swing.  It’s an exciting time of year as checks roll in at a much faster clip – the fruits of your labor, and payoff for a year’s worth of tremendously hard work by your organization and your fundraising team.

Back before I’d ever raised any money, I thought fundraising meant going to black tie, rubber chicken dinners and having conversations as dull as the food.  It was the necessary evil of putting fuel in the tank for doing your real work.

It’s good to be so wrong about something.  It provides perspective, acts as a stiff shot of humility.

This year more than ever, as the checks have been coming in from people I’ve known for years now, I can personally feel their support in a new way.  Knowing who they are and how much they give of themselves, knowing how seriously they take their donation and how much trust they are placing in us to make a difference in the world with their money – it fills me with a profound sense of duty and of respect.  It makes me want to work harder, to work smarter, to do more to make them proud.  It makes me realize that my job (our job), now, is to live up to their gift.

To all of you out there (you know who you are), let me say, again: thank you.

Good Karma?

It used to be that remembering someone’s birthday was a big deal.  If you called someone up, sent them a nice card or an email, it meant something.  That’s because remembering someone’s birthday used to rely either on your memory or on trusty File-O-Fax (or similar).

Then Outlook came along, and things got easier.  Birthday reminders would pop up on your calendar, but there was still some friction in the system since it was up to you to input each birthday manually. And then we got Plaxo (remember Plaxo?), LinkedIn and Facebook, and it became impossible not to remember someone’s birthday.  Birthday reminders became ubiquitous, and the effort of writing a Facebook wall posts (“Happy b-day!!”) became as minimal as the effort that went in to remembering the birthday.  So it’s easy, but it’s not special.

The other day I downloaded Karma, an amazingly slick new mobile app that launched last month.  It takes things to a whole new level (you should download it to see for yourself).  Karma is all about making gift-giving easier, with an oh-so-smooth onboarding (you can give your first gift without entering credit card info OR a mailing address for the recipient), a seamless user interface and an intuitive user experience that just begs you to start giving gifts.  No wonder Kleiner and Sequoia led a $4.5 million round.

The most surprising, glimpse-of-the-future feature of Karma is that it can read and interpret your Facebook friends’ status updates.  So when I downloaded it, not only did it show me friends’ birthdays for the coming two weeks, the app also told me that I might want to send a gift to someone who was having a bad day – because it has seen that someone had replied to his Facebook status update saying “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Wow.  Talk about crazy.  So the app not only knows how old each of my friends is and their birthdays and anniversaries, it’s also able to interpret their updates and their friends’ updates to tell me (or anyone in their network) when they’re experiencing highs and lows in their lives.

That terrified me a little, but I’m betting that it will feel run-of-the-mill 18 months from now.   No doubt sometime in the distant future (say, 2014), we’ll each have a futuristic virtual assistant every bit as knowledgeable and proactive as the best executive assistant of 20 years ago – prompting us with a mood-sensing dashboard for the goings-on and well-being of all of our friends and business contacts, and allowing us to chime in, send a kind word or give a gift the push of a button (or maybe the blink of an eye).

The Karma app is kind of amazing, and this interview with founder Lee Linden gives a sense that they actually care about the interpersonal connections we could be making with the help of technology.

But the big, complicated irony here is that as our apps get more intelligent, as they evolve from pushing us people’s birthdays to sending us smart updates about what’s going on in their lives, we run the risk of opting out of doing the work it takes to really be connected to one another. I know the tools are just tools, but if gift-giving (in all senses) is about putting something real and personal into something that you do, does the exponential reduction in friction that these apps create actually make it harder to give real gifts?  When the app does all the work, does it elbow us out of the picture entirely?

The question isn’t “should this evolution happen?”  It’s happening just as much as journalism will soon be unrecognizable and self-publishing is becoming mainstream.  The question is how do we understand these changes and make the best of them?

The Karma app is cool, I bet it will catch on, but having this all in our hands puts the onus on us to make our actions more genuine, more thought-out, more personal – like a hand-written three-page letter in the era of 140 character updates.

It will be our job to put the friction back into the system.

The long, hard, stupid way

Later this month I’m speaking at the DO Lectures, and as part of my preparation I wanted to see a few of the lectures to get a flavor for the event and the talks. From the DO site I randomly picked the first popular talk, Frank Chimero’s “Do things the long, hard, stupid way.”

Of course, the talk is all about giving gifts. Kismet.

Frank describes himself as a “graphic designer, teacher and writer,” who, of course, does a talk with no slides (because that’s the “long, hard, and stupid way” for a graphic designer to give a talk).

The “long, hard, stupid” quotation comes from David Chang, celebrated restaurateur and proprietor of one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Momofuku on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. According to Frank, David once bit the head off of a line cook at one of his restaurants for taking a shortcut in making a dish, excoriating him because, “Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.”

(I actually made David Chang’s Momofuku ramen from scratch once, in December 2010 right before I stopped eating meat. It took about 40 hours from start to finish and it definitely IS a long, hard, stupid recipe. It is also unbearably, fabulously delicious. Here’s the photo).

“Long, hard and stupid” is about doing things that don’t make sense in the traditional sense. “Long, hard and stupid” is about care and craftsmanship and love.

Frank’s talk is mostly about gift-giving, going deep into what makes a gift a gift. A gift isn’t the brightest, shiniest thing, it something which has value put into it by the giver. The giver of a gift lets go of something she can never fully get back. There’s a reason why parents keep birthday cards from their kids for decades.

Something about Frank’s talk connected a lot of dots for me. My father is a concert pianist and, romantic notions of what that’s like notwithstanding, growing up hearing my father practice meant experiencing, vicariously, the “long, hard, stupid way” every day. The way he practices is far beyond reasonable, far beyond what might make sense or be efficient by any objective standard. It is about perfection. It is based on drive and love and the pursuit of something that only he sees.

So, when I was in 6th grade, he was stuck on a particularly tricky passage of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and he’d call me to his piano every two weeks to say “I’ve got it!” and he’d play the passage for me. It would sound perfect. A few days later he’d be back to the drawing board with a new fingering, and a few weeks later that would also sound perfect. And on and on he’d go, for months. In the midst of this madness, I was walking to school one day and a big truck honked – I actually heard the start of those same 32 measures that I’d heard, at that point, hundreds of times. That might sound amazingly erudite, but really it’s just plain crazy. And a little bit inspiring.

Bringing things back to today, Frank’s talk unlocked a mystery that’s been lurking in the background ever since I came to Acumen Fund more than five years ago. In the early days of my career, the one thing that terrified me was the notion of ever having to sell ANYTHING. Sales people were extroverts who loved cocktail parties where they knew nobody; they went to the bar at the end of 16 hour workdays so they could meet a few more new people. I knew that I could never sell because at the end of that same 16 hour day, all I wanted to do was get back to my hotel room and steal a few precious moments with a good book.

And then I got to Acumen Fund and found myself….selling. Sitting across from people telling our story. Helping conceive and execute a $100 million capital raise. Pounding the table telling people that they have radically misunderstood fundraising and that it’s something they HAVE to do if they’re going to succeed in the nonprofit sector.

How did I make the leap?

The “long, hard, stupid way,” of course. Meaning I cared enough and believed enough in what Acumen is doing, which meant that I could put love and passion into the work. When I sit across from someone who might give to Acumen, I’m not shilling some interchangeable widget, I’m sharing a vision, one of hope and possibility and making a dent in the universe if we all pull together and slog through the hard, messy, often unrewarding work of making real change.

When I share that passion and hope, I’m giving a gift.

And yet the world tells us every day that the “long, hard, stupid way” doesn’t make any sense. It’s impractical. You can and you must cut corners here and there.


If you’ve read the Steve Jobs biography you know how famously passionate Jobs was about every last detail of everything. Apple, the most valuable, most revered company of our time, designs products “the long, hard, stupid” way, and the day they stop doing that is the day they’ll no longer be Apple. And it’s not just them – now that everything is easily available and wildly affordable, we spend our energy seeking out things that haven’t been found, things that exude caring and attention to detail and craftsmanship. Why? Because it’s impossible not to notice when someone cared more than they should have about what they were making. We can feel that essence, and it moves us. We seek out objects, and people, who give gifts in everything they do.

Our opportunity, today, is to recognize that now more than ever, how we do everything is what defines us, what humanizes us, and what differentiates us. To recognize that cutting corners is a race to the bottom. To see that we’re not going to make massive change by cutting one more corner or by squeezing out that last half a percent of efficiency.

We have the opportunity, today, to give our gift to the world.

Giving this gift is what changes everything.

Each and every dollar

If you work at a nonprofit, as I do, you might pause and consider: each and every dollar for your organization comes from a gift.

Obvious at some level, but if you stop to think about this for a second your perspective changes.  Think of the seriousness and the intention of every donor, the dreams – small or big – they attach to the donation they have made.

I’m not at all advocating for penury for nonprofit staff; in fact I firmly believe that we need the best people to create massive change.  The problems we are working on are so important, so challenging, so complex, and pay is part of the equation in getting and keeping the best folks.

But there’s a certain humility that comes with remembering that you are working on someone else’s dime, that no matter where you are and what you are doing, you are engaged in service work thanks to the trust that someone has placed in you and in your organization.

It never ceases to amaze me that the nonprofit sector has a reputation for being less rigorous, less focused, less fast-paced, less strategic than the private sector.  First, because all the people I know who work at nonprofits put their hearts and souls into their work every day.  Second because once we’ve made the decision to do this work we have no choice but to be completely committed and to do our best work every day.

The minimum bar is to treat the money your organization spends like your own.

The higher bar is to remember that it is a gift from someone else, entrusted to you to make a change in the world.

It’s a huge responsibility.

Generosity excerpt

From a reader who was kind enough to share this story.

When living in NYC I, like many others, was constantly bombarded by people asking for money, spare change, food if I happened to be carrying some.  And like many I turned them all down.

I found myself working in mid-town for a year and on my way to the office each day I would pass a young homeless man just leaning again a non-descript building.

Nondescript man against a nondescript building not asking anyone for anything.

For the next six months I would give him $10, $5, $20, whatever I had with me, usually 2-3 days a week.  On the days I had no cash I would buy him a sandwich and drink.  It got to the point where I would ask him what he would like from deli and go get it.

He never said thank you, never bothered me if I was not able to give him anything.  Other than the sandwich order we never spoke.  To this day I wish I could have done more.

“To this day I wish I could have done more.”  That’s the part of the story that gets to me almost as much as imagining this silent relationship in which the giver is asking for nothing in return.

Generosity arbitrage

Here’s a nifty transaction for the economically-minded among you (and for everyone else too):

  1. I bought lunch at the local Thai restaurant for $8.55
  2. I got $0.45 change that I dropped in the tip jar, for which I got a smile
  3. I got a stamp on my “Buy 10 noodles or entrees get one free” card, which made me smile

The stamp is worth about $0.85 (1/10th the price of an entrée), though in reality a little less since I’ve been known to lose the card.  So basically the 45 cent tip I’m giving and the stamp I’m receiving are a wash, financially speaking.

Even though the transaction would have been almost identical – in terms of money changing hands – if I’d not gotten the stamp and I’d not left the tip,  that’s not how it felt at all.  How it felt was that we each (I and the restaurant owner) had taken the opportunity to trade gifts, we had each willingly acted generous with each other, and we both came out ahead as a result.

There’s a reason that there is a tradition of exchanging gifts – whether at holidays (synchronously) or birthdays (asynchronously).  It’s because gifts are special, irrational things that allow us to express love or thanks or hope.

One of the biggest problems about looking at everything through an economic lens is that you inevitably place more value on the things that are easy to count and easy to measure.