This Leads to This

We get rapid-fire requests every day, and often end up beating them back with a stick.

As in: can you….write a quick response here? ….help this new potential Board Member better understand the program that you run? …meet with this journalist for 45 minutes? …share your 200 word biography for this conference? …write the first draft of our next quarterly newsletter? …give the team a 60 second update on what you’re focused on this week.

Most of the time, when we’re asked questions like this, a quiet internal narrative takes over, often with a dollop of panic: “I need to be really complete” “I’ve gotta to show them I’m on top of things” “So and so will be mad if I don’t include something about their work” “Why are you asking me that question????!”

Put another way, so often when we’re in the “answering the question mode” we feel put on the spot, and our deep desire to “do a good job” takes over in a way that shuts off any real sense of strategy or purpose.

The antidote to this natural response is to get into the discipline of saying out loud (or just to yourself):

I would like THIS (update, letter, email, 1-on-1 conversation, speech) to lead THIS person to do THIS.

Each and every time, I have the chance to start with clarifying, to myself, that this thing I am doing will create, for a small number of people (maybe just one), a specific response, a specific change, a specific action. Achieving that change is the purpose of what I’m doing.

*phew* that helps.

Step 1, then, is being able to say what that change is in what kind of person.

Step 2 is, for every word you write or say, for who you look at, for how you stand, for how you dress, for the words you choose, and, most important, everything you decide not to say…every thing is in service of that single purpose. Everything utterance that doesn’t help you achieve that goal becomes extraneous or, worse, undermines that purpose.

Here’s a nice test: when we brief someone on your next _______ (speech, email campaign, fundraising meeting, brief at the staff meeting), what do we tell him? If we dive in to “here’s how we do this, this is the content we have to cover,” we’re failing the “this leads to this” test. Whereas if we start with, “we’re trying to reach THIS kind of person to tell them THIS part of our story so that they will do THIS,” we are very much on the right track.

And every time someone on your team says “can we stop talking about this purpose stuff and just get on to creating the _______ (document, email, video, etc.) you’re well within your rights to say, “Actually, until we know what we’re trying to do here, I’m pretty sure that’s the only conversation we should be having.”

Hiring a World-Class Marketer and Storyteller

What could be better than hiring the right person for a transformative job, one that allows them to use their skills, their passion, their energy and their knowledge to change the world?

I’m looking for someone to run all of marketing and communications at Acumen.  “Marketing” in the fullest sense of the word, the way Seth describes it as “transform[ing] the way you and your organization spread your ideas, engage with customers and most of all, think about what you make and why.”

I deeply believe that Acumen has a powerful story to tell.  And I know that telling this story in the right way to the right people won’t only be transformative for us as an organization, it will help the world understand that intractable problems can be solved, it will shift global conversations about dignity and inequality and connection, it will demonstrate the potential of a new breed of values-based leadership.

I’m guessing that the right person for this job has around 15 years of professional experience; is a thinker and a doer and a troublemaker in the best sense of the word; is someone who cares deeply, synthesizes easily, learns quickly.  You don’t have to be an expert in poverty or international development, but you do have to be a truth-seeker who cares about this work in real way.

Even if you’re not this person, I bet you know someone who knows someone who… get the idea.  So please spread the word.

I can’t wait to read the applications, because I know that I’ll be surprised and delighted and that I’ll learn a lot from all of you.  (If you do apply, please take a risk and shine).

Here’s the full job description, so you can just forward this post to the right people.

Or forward this link:


Acumen – Director of Marketing and Communications

Acumen is hiring a Director of Marketing and Communications, a seasoned marketer who thrives on taking the complex and making it meaningful, visceral, understandable, and personal.  We believe we have an important story to tell about the transformative impact we, and the world, can have on poverty.  It is a story of innovation, of possibility, and of human dignity.

You are someone who cares about the problems of global poverty and of inequality, and you bring world-class talent as a marketer, a communications professional, and a storyteller and a thinker.  You understand that the future of marketing is about trust and relationship-building, about how an organization can represent and transmit a set of values in everything it does.  You are energized by the idea of digging in deep to understand what Acumen has to offer, and you have the skills and relationships to bring the latest thinking, tools, ideas and action to sharing our unique story with the world.

About Acumen

Acumen started as an idea. Thirteen years later we have a proven model that combines the best of charity and investing to change the way the world tackles poverty.

Acumen is changing the way the world tackles poverty by investing in companies, leaders and ideas.  We were one of the early pioneers that created the field of impact investing.  Our companies have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people by providing them high-quality, affordable water, sanitation, healthcare, housing, energy, agriculture and education.   We offer leadership programs that bring together the world’s best talent to focus their skills, capacity and moral imagination to solve the world’s toughest problems of poverty.   And we invest in the spread of ideas to share what we are learning, in order change the way the world tackles poverty.

We see each investment as a provocation, a chance to support entrepreneurs who dare to build solutions where markets have failed and traditional aid has fallen short.

See who is talking about us here.

About the Role

Reporting to the Chief Innovation Officer, this role requires:

  • World-class marketing and storytelling experience.  You have more than a track record in marketing, brand management, communications and storytelling.  You understand that marketing ultimately is about creating meaningful connection that drives action, and that a catalytic approach will accelerate the impact of our work by creating broader and deeper understanding of our values, our progress and our impact.  This will help us continue to lead our sector and be a beacon for what is possible in the fight on global poverty.  The chops you bring are in managing or advising big or upstart brands, in thinking strategically and in telling stories.  You are digitally native or know how to find and manage talented people who use video and online tools to create change.
  • Demonstrated capacity to develop, refine and transmit Acumen’s message to key stakeholders—our Partners, our Advisors, our peers, and our community around the world.  You are skilled in taking a rich, complex message and boiling it down to its essence.  Better yet, you have the audacity, imagination and skills to activate our teams around the world to systematically discover, raise up and share important and inspiring stories—stories from from the slums of Kenya, from the mountains of Pakistan, from smallholder farmers in Ghana or from the poorest state in India—to teach our community and the world about how to make real and lasting change in the fight on global poverty.
  • Strategic thinking, solutions design and internal/external evangelism. You are a highly strategic thinker, comfortable with sophisticated financial products and interested in the nuances of poverty alleviation, who will mine the richness of all we are learning and empower our global organization to share what we are learning in more exciting and visceral ways.
  • Exceptional writing and communications skills.  You will ultimately have the final word on all external and internal communications by Acumen and will serve as a key advisor to Acumen’s Management Committee and to the CEO.  You must be a strong writer who is comfortable managing and representing the multiple voices of Acumen.
  • A deep commitment to our mission.  We are looking for a leader with evidence of empathy, passionate curiosity, and a commitment to helping others. You have a demonstrated interest in creating large-scale change, and you have relevant exposure to work in the social sector, whether locally or globally.

Specific responsibilities include:

  • Evolve Acumen’s current marketing and outreach to create much stronger connection to and relationship with the Acumen brand and the values it represents.  Strengthen Acumen’s positioning as a go-to source for ideas on the role of patient capital in fighting global poverty.
  • Enhance Acumen’s brand salience, brand engagement, brand congruence and brand velocity. Help our key stakeholders understand what we do, why we do it, and how it’s relevant to them.  Ensure that they feel heard, and that they can meaningfully engage with Acumen and with our work.  Invite leading-edge thinkers into our work to ensure we stay highly relevant and innovative.  Create experiences that uniquely amplify our message and draw partners to us in a deep and meaningful way.
  • Create a system to surface, develop and publish compelling stories based on our work. Drive discovery of the best thinking at Acumen (using new or old forms of technology) and quickly transform these insights into stories that can be used to accelerate the work of  Acumen’s Business Development team, our Communications team, the Office of the CEO, and Acumen’s Country Leaders, accelerating our ability to raise funds, to share what we are learning, and to influence a broader conversation about new ways to solve seemingly intractable problems.
  • Oversee global communications, including all press and PR across all of Acumen’s geographies and all of Acumen’s digital properties (including video and online fundraising). You will lead and manage the team responsible for sharing our best front-line thinking and insights across five regions, whether through Op Eds and external media, thought pieces that move the conversation in our sector, or materials for communications with Acumen’s key funders, Advisors and Board members.
  • Provide direct support to Acumen’s CEO, Jacqueline Novogratz, and work with the Chief of Staff to the CEO to ensure maximum impact of her communications—whether written, in the press, or in public speaking opportunities. Continue to position Acumen’s CEO as a key thought leader in development and social enterprise, positioning her for increased visibility in global conversations on the role of capitalism, philanthropy and markets in creating a more inclusive economy.
  • Lead a matrixed global team of eight, including a core team of four professionals based in New York

Qualifications & Characteristics

Passion, entrepreneurial spirit, and rejecting the status quo are just a few of the things that Acumen team members have in common.  They also share a commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the organization’s mission and business model, coupled with respect for our core values: generosity, accountability, humility, audacity, listening, leadership, integrity, respect.

Ideal candidates for this role also have:

  • 15+ years of work experience, ideally a blend of private, social or non-profit sector.
  • Highly creative, comfortable with ambiguity, interested in big, thorny questions.
  • Strong network of relationships with thought leaders in your space, and the capacity to effectively enlist and engage leading thinkers and doers to support our work.
  • The ability to thrive in an ambiguous environment, provide leadership and direction to the team when there are curve balls, and to lead with inspiration, resilience and resolve.
  • High capacity to collaborate across matrixed teams, as well as the ability to exert influence both with and without formal authority.
  • Eagerness to travel globally across the developing world (anticipated 10-20% travel).
  • Permanent authorization to work in the United States.


Acumen offers competitive compensation for the international development sector, commensurate with experience. Compensation includes a base salary, an annual bonus based on achievement of individual and organizational goals, health insurance, and an employer-sponsored contribution to a defined contribution retirement program.


This role is based in Acumen’s New York City office at 15th Street and 9th Avenue.


For Consideration

Please apply online through this link to submit your resume and answer the following two questions. Feel free to have your written responses refer to websites / videos / published work online.

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Describe three brands you have worked on and what you did to make them succeed

Applications will be considered on a rolling basis, so candidates are encouraged to apply as soon as possible.

Multi-purpose spoon

Multi-purpose spoon

Your job isn’t to take the same thing that everyone else offers and pretend it’s something different.

You job is to create something that actually is different and then let people in on the secret that you’ve made something remarkable.

New wine, new bottles.

Why Generosity Day spreads

The good folks at Say100 Media asked me to answer some questions about Generosity Day.  Here’s the text or the original interview is here.

We asked Sasha to tell us about Generosity Day 2012, why generosity is contagious, and how to move millions of people to action without spending a dime.

What are the key things marketers can learn from Generosity Day? In 2011, Generosity Day went from an idea to a global phenomenon in 72 hours – with no resources behind it. This would have been impossible if the idea hadn’t been simple, sticky, compelling, a message that was easy for people to own that they were eager to spread. As marketers we understand these lessons, but we still put way too much effort into figuring out clever ways to try to spread OK ideas instead of putting all our effort into creating great ideas. Generosity Day was an idea that was built to spread and it reminded me how often we’re pushing the rope on an idea that matters to us but doesn’t matter to our audience.

What are some of your favorite ways to be generous that don’t involve giving money? Giving money actually is the easiest form of generosity. Generosity of spirit – being consistently kind to others, open, giving someone the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best in someone else – that’s where the rubber really hits the road for me and where the real work is. It’s so easy and such a bad habit to be quick to judge, and when that happens we are blind to so much wisdom, grace, creativity, knowledge and love. Quick judgment is the easy way to surround ourselves with people who act like us, think like us, make us feel safe … so generosity of spirit is a way to open the door to a whole new set of people and experiences.

Has the economic uncertainty in the financial world made people more or less generous? The official numbers say that giving levels have remained the same throughout the recession, so it’s hard to judge. In my experience people are definitely feeling more uncertain so while they may still be giving, willingness to make larger and longer-term commitments seems to be decreasing.

Is generosity contagious? If yes, why? Absolutely. We know that when someone discovers a few extra quarters in a vending machine they are much more likely to be generous to the next person – to pick up papers that someone has dropped or to help them solve a problem.  This is hard-wired into our brains, so one generous act begets another.  We’ve all experienced this personally, but we rarely think about the massive multiplier effect if we could create even a moderate shift in generosity at a societal level.

Part of the problem is that we lack the lexicon and the habit of thinking more broadly and systemically about the role that generosity plays in our lives. Historical traditions, whether religious or tribal, have this vocabulary embedded in ritual and scripture – we once understood that people need guideposts and clear expectations about how to treat one another. It’s time to revive this language and make it applicable to our modern lives.

Do you still say find yourself saying yes to everything? No. I did an experiment of saying yes to requests for help for a month so I could see what shifting my default response would do for my orientation to life. It was a powerful experience but I can’t literally do it every day. If anything I’m working on saying no to more small things and yes to the big scary ones. Even if I can’t say yes to everything, I can change my orientation, I can recognize that I want to be more opens – to people, new ideas, improbable connections, possibility. The generosity experiment was a tangible way to practice that.

How did Generosity Day go this year? Any favorite stories? It was incredible. 2011 was our first year and we had no lead time at all – we conceived of the idea on Friday and had three days to spread the word. This year it was at least twice the size and people all over the world participated and shared their stories. We had more than 5,000 tweets seen by millions of people, hundreds of articles and blog posts (too many to count), three amazing organizations made videos on their own dime that were seen more than 40,000 times in one day (here, here and here). Kevin Bacon even tweeted and took an awesome photo to help spread the word, and best of all we got to capture some amazing generosity stories on the Generosity Day Causes site. And not a single dollar was spent to spread the word – everybody donated everything.

I was really touched by so many stories: someone shared that they’d told an 80 year old woman how beautiful she was and she shed a tear and said that no one had told that to her that in years; another guy bought $50 worth of Starbucks gift cards and shared his honest challenges in giving them away; a group in London spent the morning talking about generosity and all committed to specific generous actions – including walking around London giving out croissants to people on the street and talking about Generosity Day! It’s all fun and positive and it cracks the door open to new kinds of conversations and reflections.

If everyone were a little more generous would all our problems be solved? Sadly, no. Solving big problems is hard work, and generosity alone isn’t enough. But I’m sure that everything would be better, that more trust would be built, that more connections would be made, that we would see more possibilities if we all were more generous.

What are your top three priorities right now? We just had our 10 year anniversary at Acumen Fund where I’m the Chief Innovation Officer, so that was an opportunity for real reflection and also looking to the future. With more than $75 million invested in sustainable businesses that have served more than 85 million low-income customers, we have a lot to be proud of but also a lot of work left to do! So my top priorities are around scaling our impact: getting a much deeper understanding of the social impact we’re having on the lives of the poor and sharing those models with the world; helping people who are interested in our space (which has been termed “impact investing”) to understand that we have to be laser-focused on creating large-scale social change, and that if you make unattractive financial returns that create massive social dividends that is OK; and the global expansion our Fellows programs so we can deepen the bench of leaders who can do this work globally.

You’ve tried some other experiments recently like giving up meat, and the 360 project. What experiments are next? None of these are planned, so I honestly don’t know. They all come from a recognition that there’s nothing special or necessarily right about the way I’ve always done things, and a lot of old habits, attitudes and approaches aren’t serving me well.

The leaders I admire the most seem to have an almost unending capability to evolve, to learn, and to grow, so I’ve made a firm commitment to being willing to change and am enjoying seeing where that takes me. Learning how to change is probably my greatest accomplishment over the last 5 years.

Marketing vocab lesson

I noticed this new ad for the Amazon Kindle today….

….and then was reading my friend Tom Fishburne’s weekly Brand Camp marketoon: “What Ads Say” (due homage paid to Gary Larson)

It seems so obvious that the best way to speak to our customers and describe what we do is by using regular language, but it’s so rarely what we do.

The Amazon ad struck me because “No wi-fi hot spot required” is a sentence you absolutely couldn’t have used as ad copy 10 years ago, or 5 years ago….2 years ago? Eh, probably not.

Where you sit relative to the vocabulary your customers are comfortable with is a conscious choice, one that communicates something about your brand and where it sits relative to the mainstream.  Of course if you’re actually writing ad copy – as opposed to, say, blogging or communicating in some other sort of anticipated, personal and relevant way – then by definition you’re shooting for the mainstream and you should pick your words accordingly.

Occasionally, just occasionally, you can decide to teach your customers new vocabulary (e.g. “4G”).  But I can’t think of a single occasion when it’s OK to use jargon.

Carrots and marketing to the poor

Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.”  They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards.  One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell.  (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.)   The rest is history.

Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.

With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots.  These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten.  So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.

Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market.  Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product.  He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?

A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work.  Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well.  Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently?  “Benefits” don’t sell.

This is happening for one of two reasons:

  1. Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
  2. Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).

It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).

It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor:  cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)

It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them.  It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions.  And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.

The indifferents

There’s a group of people out there who love you.  Your passionate fans who talk about you to anyone who will ask, who spread the word and your message and carry your brand with you.  Cherish and nurture them.

There are others who have actively decided that you’re not for them.

And then there are the indifferents. The ones who have known about you for a while, who have heard your story for months or even years, who you’ve cultivated tirelessly.  And they’re still not acting, not buying, not convinced.

What do you do about them?

Here’s a hint: which is more likely, that the person who has heard your message 15 or even 50 times will suddenly be convinced if you have just one more go at it? Or that you’ll find someone brand new and get them excited?  That’s right, go for the new guy.

By the way, there’s a difference between indifferent and unconvinced, but it’s going to take a whole lot of work for you to figure out who’s who, work that may never pay off.

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