Dan Pallotta at TED

I had the privilege of attending the TED conference last week – a bounty of new ideas, optimistic predictions, and insightful reflections on the world today and the world as it could be tomorrow.

The most challenging and exciting talk for the nonprofit sector was by Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable and Charity Case.  Dan made a name for himself creating the then-ubiquitous AIDS and breast cancer walks and rides – these events raised $108 million and $194 million for charity, respectively, according to Dan’s numbers.  Dan’s pitch, which he has been making for years but never as clearly or effectively as he did last Friday, is that we are never going to solve the world’s toughest problems if allow the prevailing orthodoxy to rule in the nonprofit sector and in the minds of the philanthropists who fund them.

Dan Pallotta at TED

Dan Pallotta speaking at TED (Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Dan has been a lightning rod in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade because he has been such a vocal, unabashed voice for change.  He was fully transparent about this, starting his talk explaining how challenging and frustrating it was when his company was shut down because of the backlash that came when it became clear that putting on the rides/walks used up a big portion of the funds that people raised – despite the nearly $300 million net raised for these charities.

The two most controversial points Dan made in the talk were about nonprofit pay and fundraising.  On nonprofit pay, the line I found most memorable was, “You can make $50 million in a year selling violent video games to kids and they put you on the cover of Wired magazine; but if you make $500,000 as a nonprofit executive director working on solving some of the world’s toughest problems they will run you out of town.”  Indeed.

On fundraising, Dan’s big point is that if you can take a philanthropic dollar and turn it into $10 or $100, then it is absurd not to do so and even more absurd for a philanthropist to feel like you are wasting her money when you spend it in this way.

What I love about Dan’s talk is the conversations it forces us to have, ones that get to the heart of what philanthropy is, why people give, and what it will take to make real change in the world.

To me the conversation starts with a basic question: do you think that the people who work for nonprofits are adding value; or, put more technically, is the amount of good they create – in terms of the problem you’d like them to solve – greater than they amount that they are paid.  (Ironically, it’s easiest to figure out this question when you analyze a person on the fundraising because you can easily quantify the funds she raises against how much she costs the organization.) If you don’t feel like nonprofit organizations/their staff add value, then it’s easy to conclude that the organization itself should take up as few resources as possible.

Philosophically, one wants as much ______ (money, water, chickens, anti-malarial bednets) to land in the hands of the needy recipients as is humanly possible, and so one wants a nonprofit sector whose only role is to do the minimum possible to make those ________ (things) end up in others’ hands, and to eat up as little as possible of each donated dollar to make that happen along the way.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you believe that there’s a thorny set of problems that haven’t yet been solved in the world, then we need the most highly capable, intelligent, hard-working, long-lasting people on the planet to solve those problems.  So making sure one has the tools to get and keep the best people becomes vital and, more importantly, one quickly understands the limitations of a worldview that says that those people are “overhead” (a.k.a. something to be minimized.)

Of course the world does not exist in black and whites.  Development professionals who live in gated communities in multi-million dollar homes, separated by barbed wire fences and Range Rovers from the people they ostensibly are in the business of serving – well that’s obviously hugely problematic.  So the message isn’t “more pay is better.”  We need some basic checks in the system or it’s never going to work.  At the same time we need to ask ourselves whether the system we have today is oriented towards “efficiency” (which itself is elusive) at the expense of effectiveness: I could easily waste very little of your money but never actually manage to solve the problem you ultimately hope to solve, by shoveling 90 cents out of every dollar into direct aid but never change the system that created the need for aid and charity in the first place.

While we know there are no easy answers we cannot pass on asking the tough questions, on having an out-loud conversation about whether this system we have built is actually working. Because many think it is.  A philanthropist I spoke with after Dan’s talk told me that he found the talk to be very troubling: Dan, he said, does not understand the mindset of the philanthropists at all and he completely missed the mark.  “If I find a startup that I believe in,” this philanthropist said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m happy to put up some risk capital in the knowledge that it might succeed or it might fail.  But when I dip into my philanthropic pocket, I want the charity to treat that capital as precious, to spend it wisely, and to make sure as much of it as possible goes to those in need.”

“….treat that capital as precious…” is the key phrase there.  Guard it, protect it, mete it out carefully and cautiously and be sure you don’t make any mistakes as a steward of that capital.

“So,” I asked, “I absolutely can understand that you want nonprofits to careful with your money.  But where do they go for risk capital?  Or investment capital?”

Unfortunately we couldn’t finish that conversation, but I feel better equipped to have it thanks to Dan’s talk, thanks to seeing Dan’s outrage at how backwards the system we created is, thanks to statistics like the one Dan shared that, since 1970, while only 144 nonprofits have grown to more than $50 million in annual revenues, more than 46,000 for-profits have crossed that threshold. Put another way, a new non-profit is less than 1/300th as likely than a new for-profit to grow big enough to have enough scale to really matter, to have enough scale to figure out what they are doing and have some heft to actually solve a problem.

That doesn’t feel right.

What it feels like, what Dan is saying is that we’re asking nonprofits to take on the toughest problems in the world, problems that the private and the public sector still haven’t managed to solve, and to do it with one hand (“you can’t spend money to make more money”) and one leg (“you can’t use my donation as risk capital”) tied behind our collective back.

Dan’s talk isn’t online yet but you can see a more detailed summary of it on the TED blog.

TED and introverts part 2: Structures or Incentives

Commenting on my post last week about TED and how introverts can work the room, Joey Katona asked what incentives TED creates to get people to socialize and network.

The answer is: none.

What they create are structures that facilitate social interaction – everything from the composition of the attendees, the physical space, the food provided, the agenda, everything.

Let me give a concrete counter-example of another conference with equally impressive attendees.  The amount of socializing that occurred (especially between people who didn’t already know each other) was very low, and it was because of the physical space: traditional hotel ballrooms in a giant hotel.

The vastness of the “not in the conference hall” space resulted in people naturally dispersing at every break; there weren’t many chairs or food in the hallway so it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable way to talk; the amount of unprogrammed time was limited; and on and on.

We are naturally social creatures whose behavior is hugely influenced by our physical environment.

If you want to create spontaneous and productive socialization at a conference, the first step is to actually decide that doing this is one of your goals.  That means that you spend as much time and energy thinking about the “non-programmed” time as you do about the program (the speakers, the official program, everything that your conference appears to be about).

By way of example, some of the zillions of structures that TED puts in place to make socializing more likely:

  • Significant non-programmed time for socialization
  • Numerous places to get food during breaks, so that groups sizes are manageable and you don’t wait too long for food (but you talk a bit while you’re waiting on line)
  • At least 12 “social spaces” designed for sitting and talking….
  • ….with simulcast of the main stage event so that you can keep on talking if you’re having a great conversation
  • Lots of nooks and crannies to explore, sponsored by various companies, where you’re likely to find someone else interested in something you’re interested in (even if that’s paddleball)
  • Giant name tags with pictures, your name, and three things to “talk to me about…”
  • An out-of-this-world, curated audience, resulting in huge positive feedback every time you meet someone new – because folks are so amazing
  • Etc.

Your conference doesn’t have the resources that TED does, but that doesn’t matter.  The moment you decide that getting people to talk to each other is important you’ll start seeing things differently.  Then it’s up to you to have fun with the physical environment, how you use time, the food you serve, the music you play, what you do with the lights….everything really.

You won’t get it right the first time but have 10 attendees you love and care about and 10 young people on your staff spend the whole conference watching how people do and don’t interact, what spaces and what time blocs worked and didn’t, and debrief that after the conference.  You’ll be amazed what you discover.

How introverts can work the room

I just got back from the TED conference, which always pushes my thinking and my sense of possibility.  One of the many exceptional things about TED is that it is organized to create ample opportunities for attendees to spend time together in substantive conversation.  This is a lot of the reason that people keep showing up every year (after all, the talks are going to be available online), and while nothing can compare to the supercharged power of TED talks to reach literally millions of people in a heartbeat, I’m sure just as much remarkable stuff happens due to conversations that happen at the conference.

So what do you do when presented with a 90 minute break at TED?  How do you actually meet remarkable people?

Susan Cain’s great TED talk on introverts at this year’s TED (it’s already online and has been seem more than a half million times) reminds us that the correlation between intelligence/insight/skill/leadership and the willingness to introduce yourself to total strangers is, according to her, zero.  But I also know that a lot of introverts manage to talk to a lot of people at TED.

How?

(Full disclosure: I consider myself mostly extroverted with some introvert lurking in the wings – I err to the side of extrovert, especially when among people I know well, but when faced with the choice between a cocktail party of people I’ve never met and curling up with a good book….well, the book is looking pretty nice.)

Here’s my visualization of what it feels like at the start of a 90 minute break at TED.  I’m the red dot, the black dots are people, and the blue circles around people are their “gravitational pull” – namely, people I know best / who know me best (whether or not we intend to have a conversation) have a larger gravitational field, meaning I’m more likely to start up a conversation with them – and they are with me – with little effort or social risk.

Put another way, absent a clear plan you’re most likely to spend all your time with the people you know best / who know you best – unless you’re a strong introvert, in which case you’ll be hiding in a corner.

To explain the graphic, my options are:

  1. Walk over to folks who I know a little bit
  2. Walk over to someone I know pretty well
  3. Walk over to a close colleague or friend
  4. Go get some food and likely strike up a conversation with someone on line
  5. Walk up to a group of total strangers and introduce myself
  6. Hide in a corner (aka “stare at my iPhone”)

If you’re an introvert or if these sorts of situations are scary, this schematic might be useful because it presents a lot of options that are less terrifying than introducing yourself to total strangers (option 5).  While that is a great skill to cultivate, of the six options presented here it is clearly the most difficult to pull off and the one you’re likely to avoid completely.  Similarly, path 3 (head straight towards/get pulled towards someone you know really well) is something to be conscious about – no doubt you are being social and folks you know will introduce you to folks they know, but it’s an approach that’s bound to limit your opportunity to meet new, interesting people: if you do just this, you’ll probably spend nearly all of your time with the 5 people you know best.

So if your goal is to meet at least some new people and you’re not a big extrovert, paths 1, 2 and 4 all present themselves as viable options, with a dash of path 3 every now and again as long as you’re being deliberate about it.

(And once you do start up a conversation with people you don’t know well, spend your energy asking them questions and actually listening to their answers.  You don’t have to instantly say something brilliant nor should you spend all your mental cycles worrying about what to say next. Really listen.)

Finally, absent from the diagram (hard to represent visually) is another great option: planning in advance who you want to meet with and making a point of meeting them, either opportunistically or by reaching out before the conference.

If you do find big crowds with lots of expected mingling to be terrifying but something you’d like to improve on, experiment with some of the easier paths, working your way up in terms of “degree of difficulty.”  With success, your fears will abate and the idea of walking up to a total stranger will eventually seem like something you can pull off (hint: they don’t bite).

Generosity economy

In the ultimate world-colliding evening, last night I attended the graduation for the Class of 2011 Acumen Fund Fellows.  These 10 Fellows, selected from 700 applicants from more than 60 countries, are a humbling and inspiring assembly of talent, commitment, grit, drive, and empathy, and they spend a year working with Acumen Fund investees in India, Pakistan and East Africa as a training ground for lives in social change.

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference and all-around deep thinker and mind-bender, gave the Fellows graduation speech, and he led it off saying, “Thanks to a nice talk featured on the TED.com website last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and the role it plays in our lives.”  I couldn’t feel more humbled, or more honored, that Chris took the time to reflect on generosity – he’s the one who helped us all understand that taking the most incredible, insightful, and (at the time) exclusive content in the world and giving it away for free was the right business strategy and the right thing for the world.  He’s the ultimate generosity inspiration.

Chris started off talking about the evolutionary and biological bases for generosity, and all the research that has been done on the value of reciprocity, especially amongst pairings of individuals and groups that have reason to believe that they will have multiple encounters over time.  But he went further and shared research from experiments in which one subject was given $100 and had the option to give away any amount of that money, with the knowledge that the amount given away would triple.  Many subjects gave away all $100, and, even better, many recipients then gave back $150 to their donor.

Generosity begets generosity.  Trust begets trust.

At the same time, it’s incredibly easy to break the cycle – all you need is one shirker and the whole things spirals into a “no trust” equilibrium.  But the cycle can be broken: someone can take a generosity risk and reset the system.

At any moment, we have the chance through our individual actions to transform others’ behaviors.

Going further still, Chris observed that the best way to create generous action is through transparency: tell people to behave however they want to behave, but add the caveat that how they acted will be publicly known, and people act much more generous.

Transparency transforms behaviors. 

Chris’ final observation is that we can be generous in infinite ways, not just in sharing our money but in sharing our thoughts, our ideas, our wisdom, and that today the friction around sharing what we have to give has reduced dramatically.

It’s easier than ever to give (= spread ideas)

And suddenly we arrive at the big conclusion (not Chris’ exact words)

Increased transparency (e.g. living in a Facebook world) + frictionless idea-sharing (e.g. living in a blogging, YouTube, TED world) = We are living in a generosity economy

Discuss.

+ Audience

I started blogging three years ago.  This past Saturday, I was humbled (and thrilled!) to discover that my speech at NextGen:Charity was posted on the TED.com homepage – part of their “best of the web” series.  (93,000 views and counting…!)

This got me thinking about the series of events that led to this outcome.  There are certainly a lot of pieces, but since so much of the thinking and action behind that talk grew out of this blog, I boiled it down to the simple elements that keep me (or anyone) blogging for an extended period of time, namely:  Inspiration + Ideas + Motivation + Audience = A blog

More specifically:

Inspiration = the model of other people, whose actions and impact you’d like to emulate, doing great things with their blogs

Ideas = a flow of topics to write about that are interesting both to you and to your readers

Motivation = the drive to keep at it, day in and day out, even when the going gets tough

Audience = the knowledge that people are out there reading, and that you are being of service to them

I’m sure that there are more things at play, but in my experience these are the minimum necessary elements.  Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that this never would have happened without you.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, for cross-posting, for emailing me with great feedback and ideas and suggestions.  Thank you for pushing me every day, especially on the days when it’s hard.  Thank you for making this blog part of your day.

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

I can’t believe it took me until now to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s profound TED talk about the danger of a single story.  A friend shared it with me the day before I discovered that it’s one of the twenty most-viewed TED talks of all time.

This weekend (especially if you’re celebrating Independence Day), give yourself a gift and put aside 18 minutes to watch this.  The talk defines the power of story to subjugate, the heart of stereotypes held by everyone – even well-meaning, kind people – and how they limit all of us.  It is at times profound, wise, humorous, and hopeful. 

And if you’re as moved as I was, you’ll quickly get a sample of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun on your Kindle, start reading, and not be able to put it down.  Enjoy.

Radical openness and what it means for conferences

I had a surreal moment yesterday, while sitting in the audience at The New York Forum with my laptop open.  I had WiFi connectivity, so, out of curiosity, I logged into the live stream of the panel I was attending.  Indeed, there it was, exactly as I was experiencing it in real time, with just a 5 second delay.

The knowledge that I could have been experiencing that panel from my desk or from halfway around the world shouldn’t necessarily have made me wonder what I was doing (what we all, conference attendees, were doing) sitting in that room.  But it did.  We all came a long way to experience something that we could have experienced – at almost the same quality at almost the same time – without ever leaving the comfort of our homes or offices.

On some fundamental level, we know that it doesn’t make sense to get hundreds of incredible people together and then have them spend 80% of their time sitting in silence listening to panelists. We used to convince ourselves that it was worth it because of the illusion of scarcity and exclusivity: sure I can hear Maria Bartiromo any day on CNBC, but there she is, just 50 feet away from me, probably saying things she wouldn’t say on the air! 

The livestream shatters that illusion.  Anyone can (and should!) watch, so there’s no more scarcity.  And like it or not, scarcity equates with value.

So what do we do now?

Here’s a thought experiment, just to mess with you: wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to pre-record some or all of the “talks” at a conference, make them available (earlier?) to conference attendees and to the whole world, and do away with panels so you can use the conference to let attendees talk to one another.  Or better yet, if you want attendees to be able to hear the “panel,” have a Star Trek-like hologram of the “panel” playing in the front of the room for those who want the 3D experience.

Absent this semi-crazy notion, there really are only three options that really make sense for conferences:

Hold an un-Conference: the Tallberg Forum and the Opportunity Collaboration both have essentially no formal talks – they are gatherings focused exclusively on facilitating connection between the participants.  Note that both of these are held in remote locations, which I’m sure facilitates dialogue long into the night and makes it less likely that people will jump ship early (since normally the closing Keynote by some dignitary keeps people around until the end).

Copy TED: If you are going to have speakers, do what TED does – create a conference structure (who’s in the audience, brand, potential for your talk to be viewed zillions of time if it’s great) that makes it extraordinarily likely that most of the speakers will give the best talks of their lives.  And then build in big chunks of time for interaction amongst the participants – between panels, late at night, etc.  If you don’t want to do a TEDx (for whatever reason), there’s still no harm in borrowing shamelessly from the playbook – it works.

The fireside chat: I don’t know if anyone does this, but here’s a third idea which plays off the strength of going deep with individual “speakers:” an interview-style conversation that’s not a formal TED-like talk, one that feels intimate and is built around audience participation and really exploring the depth of knowledge of the featured guest.   You’d have to have great interlocutors who get the best out of the “speakers,” and would have to add special touches (room design, lighting, etc.) to make it feel really intimate. Or, you go completely in the other direction, SXSW style, and have great people do crazy things they’d never otherwise do (like battledecks, where people present a series of slides they’ve never seen before), so you really get a sense of personality and who they are.

You’ll notice there’s no fourth option, with an up-the-middle-of-the-fairway model in which you get 6 high profile people plus a moderator and try to direct them to have a substantive, meaningful conversation in an hour.  It’s structurally designed to fall short – panels are built to jump all over the place, to stay at a high level, to have panelists take up time explaining who they are, and never to have the chance to dig deep into a topic or a person’s expertise.  Yet despite these inherent shortcomings, it’s the natural thing to do  because that list of speakers is what fills your conference hall, the more you have of them the bigger draw you’ll be, and once you have them signed up, you may as well put them all on the stage together.

What’s interesting is that the radical openness that’s become the new standard for big conferences has done much more than democratize access to everyone who doesn’t attend the conference – it has also radically raised the bar on what is worth sitting down and listening to for 75 minutes (because there’s so much other incredible content out there, much of it generated by the very same people who are on stage at your conference).

The reason people pay between $500 and $1,500 for tickets to hear U2 isn’t because they don’t have access to U2’s music at 99 cents per song.  It’s because of the shared experience, the intimacy, the raw power of being there in the moment – it is an emotional experience that you’re not going to get in your living room, no matter how good your sound system is. (HT to Quentin Hardy for making this great point to me).

Emotional connection, human interaction, serendipitous connections with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, and yes, doing real business that you couldn’t have done in any other way – these are things I can’t get live streamed at my desk, these are things worth flying across the country for, these are things that will always be scarce.

For everything else, I’ve got a great web browser and a broadband internet connection.