The simplest nonprofit ven diagram ever

I presented today to an amazing group of 30+ summer interns and new hires who are about to start working for Acumen Fund, E+Co, Root Capital, Agora, IGNIA and Endeavor – all organizations that are supporting entrepreneurship in the developing world to promote economic development and poverty alleviation.  The training was organized by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), run by Randall Kempner.

I’ve spoken on enough 3-person panels that I’ve come to realize that the best gift I can give the audience is to leave them with one concrete, meaty thought they can take away and chew on.

So here it is, with the world’s simplest ven diagram in support of my big question:

How much overlap do you (future leaders in this sector) think there is between these two circles?

Ven A

It’s such a simple question to ask, and the group is smart enough to know how they’re supposed to answer: there’s a good deal of overlap.

But push yourself a little.  Is it what’s above (A), or is it (B) or (C)?

Ven B

Ven C

So we know the “right” answer to the question is definitely not (B), possibly (A) but maybe it’s (C).

But what we know isn’t necessarily how we act. How can you suss out what’s really going on in your organization?  Here’s a list of questions to get you started:

  • How much senior management time is spent on strategies for raising capital?
  • What percentage of her time does your CEO spend fundraising? (<10% / 30% / 50%+)
  • How much Board time is spent on this?
  • Do you have a Board Development Committee (yes/no/sort of)?  How much does it raise?
  • How much integration is there between the people who raise capital and the “program” folks?  (None/Some/A little/A lot)
  • Is there an obvious difference in the quality of staff you can recruit for capital raising functions vs. everything else in the organization?  (Yes / No)
  • Is there an obvious difference in the prestige of the different roles within the organization? (Yes / No)
  • Is it possible to be a star performer in your organization if you haven’t proven you can raise money? (Yes / No)

(Please, take this set of questions, develop them further, and use them to shake things up in your organization or at a nonprofit you love).

My take: there’s a huge amount of white space between how we analyze this question and how we act as a sector.

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Keep change pumping

Last week I heard a story on NPR about CPR protocols in life-threatening situations.  The story starts with Scott Harden, who, just before bedtime, heard his 33 year-old wife gasping for air.

“She was not the right color,” Scott said, and he started giving CPR the way he had been taught 15 years ago: 15 quick chest compressions, then two breaths, then more compressions.  But he said he “couldn’t get the breaths in,” and, guided by the 911 dispatcher, he stuck with the compressions, doing 100 per minute until the paramedics arrived.

Pete Walka was one of the first paramedics on the scene.  According to Pete, Scott saved his wife’s life.  “She’s alive because he did really good compressions until we got there,” said Pete.

A 911 dispatcher in any other state might have given Scott different advice.  Arizona, under the leadership of cardiologist Dr. Gordon Ewy of the University of Arizona, is promoting a compression-only CPR technique, based on Dr. Ewy’s assertion, and research, that it saves more lives.

Dr. Ewy argues that compression-only works better because it keeps already-oxygenated blood pumping.  Stopping compressions to give breaths means, according to Dr. Ewy, that blood stops flowing, leading to worse outcomes.  And the highly-respected medical journal The Lancet conducted a study in which it tracked 4,000 victims of cardiac arrest in Japan: it found that those who received compression-only CPR survived nearly twice as often as those who received compressions plus mouth-to-mouth.

But change is hard to come by.  According to NPR, the American Heart Association has “updated its guidelines to say that compression-only CPR is appropriate for those not trained in the standard method.”   Basically, the AHA is saying, “if you don’t know how to do it the right way, just do the compressions.”  According to Dr. Ewy, these recommendations don’t go far enough, and he’s pushing to have Arizona be at the forefront of a national change in CPR protocols.

On it’s own this is a fascinating story.  For a lifetime we’ve heard that there’s one way to give CPR, so the idea that there’s another, better way out there – lurking behind the unquestioned conventional wisdom – is itself intriguing.  What struck me even more was the argument by Dr. Michael Sayre of the American Heart Association, who helped write the new AHA guidelines.  He said:

“Honestly, I think the research that we have to date shows that the outcomes for patients seems to be very similar regardless of the kind of CPR they get.”

Put another way: if the new way is just as good as the way you’re doing things, and if some data suggests it might be better, that’s not good enough.  The bar is HIGHER when you want to make change.

We hear this argument every day – even though it’s often more subtle.  It’s the “that’s not the way we do things” refrain.

The real reason that “just as good” isn’t good enough is because the people who created the original “just as good” solution have influence and power and something to lose if something better comes along.

So if you’re in the business of making change and stirring things up, you have to keep on hitting a higher bar.  And don’t forget that for many people, “that’s not how we’ve done it before” is argument enough not to change.

The burden of proof is highest for the innovators.

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A question I’ve never been asked on a sales call

I got a call today from a headhunter looking to get hired to conduct searches.  It’s the second time he’s called me since March.

First, kudos to him for being on top of things.  He has a list of prospects, tracks things assiduously, and spends his time making cold calls to build leads.  He’s sticking to it, and that’s a hard and often thankless job.  Determination and execution go a long way.

The one catch for me was that the pitch was terrible.  It felt like he was working his way through a list. Here’s roughly how it went:

“Hi, I’m John.  We talked in March and I wanted to see if you need any help with any executive searches.  I’m calling to follow up.”

“Uh, thanks John, we don’t right now.”

“Do you think you might have needs later in the year, when the economy improves…”

“Probably not…”


Why did John make me feel like #38 on today’s list?  Because his pitch was, “Do you need anyone to conduct searches for your firm?”  This is very different from, “Do you want ME to conduct searches for your firm.”  For a “me” pitch, I’d have to know something about John, his firm, their skills, why they’d be a fit…

Instead, it was a volume play: I’ll call lots of people, I’ll have the same pitch for everyone, and if I make enough calls I’m bound to find someone who needs someone for something – and by calling, I’ll become that someone for someone.  If you do the math right (maybe he has), this can work great, for example:

30 calls/hour = 200 calls/day (some calls probably last more than 2 minutes)

1% of calls lead to a next conversation

~10 next conversations generated per week


Fair enough, but I was one of the 99% of folks that said “no” today, and by the time I’d hung up I still didn’t even know John’s last name.

Right before he lost me for good, John said:

“Before you go, can I ask you one last question?”

“Sure,” I said.


“Do you have any temporary hiring needs?”

Aw shucks, wrong question.  He’s still working his way through the script.

How about this instead: “My last question is: how did my sales pitch work for you today?  It sounds like you don’t have any hiring needs but you’re also in an awful hurry to get off the phone.  Is there anything I could have done differently?”

(applause ensues)

John would have kept me for another minute, and I’d have shared some thoughts.  He’d have learned something – if not from me from the next person who answers this question.

I’m sure half of his ‘no’s’ would tell him something if he bothered to ask what they really think.  And if John spent just one day taking his ‘no’s’ and turning them into conversations, he’s taking the 99% of calls that were worthless (200+ of them) and making them worth something – to him and the person he’s calling.

Bonus: by asking that question, he’s started a different conversation, and might actually turn a no into a ‘someday,’ someday.

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Call it out

I recently went out to a nice birthday dinner at a new TriBeCa restaurant in New York City.  It’s been open for about a month, and while the food is delicious, the service is still finding its way.  Our waiter was friendly enough, but he would disappear for swaths of time.  At one point, we found ourselves looking longingly at our bottle of white wine, chilling across the room, and discussing exactly how big a faux pas it would be to stand up, grab the bottle, and pour for ourselves.

But no matter.  It was a jovial night, and we didn’t have anywhere to be; the languorous service gave space for conversation.  But things got worse over main dishes when food arrived for everyone but the birthday girl.   She insisted we all start eating, and after some protest, everyone dug in.  But the clock kept on ticking on the one missing dish, so much so that we considered canceling the order altogether.  Finally, a full fifteen minutes later, when everyone had clean plates in front of them, the tardy pizza finally arrived.

In a stroke of brilliance, our waiter said, “We knew it was your birthday, and so we wanted to make your pizza extra-special.  That’s why it took so long for us to make it.”

Poof!  Everyone laughed.  The tension was gone.  What could have been a wrong turn, a souring of our entire meal, became a moment of lightness.

What our server did was brilliant.  The moment was awkward and tense, and he could have (a) Said nothing; or (b) Issued a standard apology.  But he took a different tack – he made a point of calling out the difficult situation, and did so with humor and grace.  Suddenly we were all looking at this bad situation together, calling it out, and laughing.  The dichotomy between the server and the customer evaporated, and with it, so did the problem.

There are a lot of situations that are like this, and since I’m in the business of raising money, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels.  Not every conversation is awkward, but there are definitely times people slip into their roles – the potential donor starts acting like the potential donor, and the fundraiser is stuck in the role of fundraiser.  Usually, this is the beginning of the end of a productive conversation.  It’s just plain awkward, and if you don’t break the tension fast you’re finished.

The thing to remember is that no one likes falling into these roles – they’re uncomfortable to everyone at the table.  So call them out.  Point to the elephant in the room, describe it, make a joke about it, diffuse the situation.  And then go on with your meal.

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What do you do for joy?

What gives you a deep feeling of peace?

What energizes and sustains you?

What nourishes your soul?

Do you make enough space in your life for these things?

If not now, when?

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It’s not you

I busted my left knee a little more than 15 years ago in a skiing accident – torn ACL, meniscus tear, the works.  I was on ski vacation with 20 people I didn’t know, the guest of a member this big group.  The first morning, I awoke groggily at 7am to a foot of fresh snow piled on the window sills.  But most of the group slept in, and between putting on snow tires and getting ski rentals for nearly everyone, we only made it to the top of the mountain by noon.  Young, eager and frustrated, I soon pitched myself past a sign marked “cliff area.” Three turns in, I discovered a side of mountain without a lick of snow.  Crash!  It’s amazing I didn’t do more damage.

That was in 1993, and over the years I’ve quietly eliminated one high-impact sport after another in deference to my ailing knee. A year ago, my knee started acting up again, and with it went the last semi-high-impact activity – squash – that was left in my repertoire. The good news is that, thanks to a good (if gruff) orthopedic surgeon, a successful arthroscopic surgery and some rehab, I’m back on my feet, and slowly making my way back onto the squash court after a one-year hiatus.

As the excitement of getting back on the court has waned, I’m smack in the middle of ample opportunity for self-criticism – all the things my squash game once was and is no more. And this has gotten me thinking: how can I fix the things that I need to fix on the court without spending all my time thinking, “I’m terrible! This is awful! That’s an easy shot I just missed!”? How do I grow without all the self-criticism?

Which of course is connected to my professional life.

I’m a firm believer that the best jobs are ones that offer real opportunity for growth.  People often take that to mean jobs where you can take on more responsibility and get promoted, but I think that’s only half the equation.  The other half is finding an environment where people give real, constructive criticism (positive and negative) about what you can do to grow into the leader you want to be.  Work environments that encourage and nurture this kind of feedback are rare.  Rarer still is having the professional trust and personal confidence to be able to take on this kind of criticism, hear it for what it is (constructive), and integrate it in a positive way.

Which brings me back to the squash court, and all the games that I used to win that I’m currently losing.  And it’s forced me to ask: why is it easier to acknowledge a criticism on the court than it is at work?

I think the answer is that, on the squash court, (self) criticism is about what you do.  “Don’t stand too close to the ball.”  “Anticipate the next shot sooner.”  “Take your racquet back earlier.”

At work, self (or external) criticism feels like it’s about who you are.  So when someone gives you feedback on how you run meetings or speak in public or what you put in emails or the way you go about analyzing problems, you first reaction might be, “How dare he say that about me?”  

“About me,” not “about what I do.” This is where you might trip yourself up.

The trick is to remember that both situations are the same. Both are about what you do, and how doing some things differently, some other things more, and another set of things less, you can be more effective.

Separating yourself (the actor) from the things that you do (the action) might just give you the space to hear the criticism for what it is: an act of support; an offering by someone who wants you to succeed, showing you what you can do differently to be the leader you want to be.

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Why I love New York

Music and humor on the way to work – talk about a different kind of commute.

People in Grand Central Station dressed in swimsuits, shorts, and work clothes, guerrilla marketing for The Ebony Hillbillies playing bluegrass outside the Shuttle train. And a woman named Julie (I think) playing guitar on the Shuttle train and singing in an angelic voice.  I’m sure she’s better than most paid acts in any other city around the world.

Some reflections:

  1. Peak commuting hours have the most people, but they’re so focused on getting to work that you aren’t going to get their attention.
  2. Nothing surprises a New York commuter
  3. Stopping for five minutes to see something beautiful, humorous, and memorable helps us all get through the day

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You, only better

There are certain things that you’re best at.

The moments when you thrive, when you shine, when others say, “Wow, that was just amazing.”  The moments that make you feel energized and clear and focused.   The moments that pass quickly.

This is you at your best.

We all have things things we need to work on.  We all need to round out the picture.  But we need to know where to start.  And why not start with your strengths?

I’ve never been a five-year career plan kind of guy, and for a long time that worried me.  I secretly feared that I would never have that plan and that without knowing where I wanted to go I would never get there.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what my highest and best use might be.

And I’m beginning to think it may well be all that I really need to know.

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Classical or jazz?

Is storytelling more like classical music or jazz?  Is there a grouping of notes and turns of phrase that you hone and deliver, or just a rough outline and a sense of where you’re going, with lots of improvisation along the way?

A few months ago I was lucky enough to participate in a (surprisingly useful) communications / storytelling workshop. The workshop was led by two people: a political consultant who works with politicians on their public speaking; and a former stage actor turned coach.  One of the most interesting parts of the workshop came when the political consultant described his recent work with a local politician who was, in the consultant’s words, one of the worst public speakers he had ever met.

The genesis of this conversation was a question: whether it was more effective to have a single story and stick to it, or to have a stable of stories and pick and choose from those stories depending on the person you’re meeting/the group to whom you’re speaking.

My bias is to do the latter – I just cannot have a genuine conversation, nor can I be genuine, if I am giving what feels like a canned speech.

Hence my surprise at their response, that the “one story” approach often works better.  In the particular example of the politician and his political campaign, they worked with him to develop exactly ONE stump speech that he delivered, word for word, at virtually every public speaking opportunity.  The only difference was the ask at the end: for voters, he asked them to go to the polls, to bring their friends to the polls, and to vote for him; for donors, he asked them to give, to ask their friends to give, and to vote for him.  Apparently it worked like a charm, and audiences would laugh and applaud and respond at all the same points in the speech, each and every time.

Even imagining this makes me feel pretty cynical.  Part of the reason that politicians are generally not trusted is the sense that they will say anything to get an outcome.  On the flip side, it is interesting to look at the extreme take on a situation (tell one story, tell it well, hone it to perfection) and see if there’s something to learn there.

I agree that I need to have easy access to a few stories that consistently get my message across, since the message is the point and the stories are enablers.  I need to have enough opportunity to play with and test and experiment and refine these stories to understand how and why they work in communicating my message.  This takes time, work, practice….repetition.

(To go far afield for a minute, say you’re interested in getting people to wash their hands as part of a broader hygiene campaign.  You have to test and know which messages work, which ones are memorable, which ones get people to act differently.)

It’s no different with your stories.  Your goal is to communicate and connect, and the people to whom you are speaking are listening to you because they want clarity, understanding, and inspiration.

So how much is classical and how much is jazz?  What’s worked best for you?

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I’ve noticed that every time the next big, important thing comes up, I always, always have time for it.  A big project, an exciting opportunity…I’m there – and I’m sure you are too.

But wait a minute.  Where did that time come from? Weren’t you flat out before someone handed you the plum project just waiting for someone to swoop in and save the day?  Sure, you can work a little harder for a little while, but if this keeps happening time and again, you must be making bigger shifts.

Which must mean that there’s always space for something new if it’s important enough.

And this begs the question: what do I do with my time when I’m not stretching on the next big opportunity?

Put another way: “If I had all the time in the world and I really wanted to reach my goals, what I’d really give more time to is _________.”

How do you fill in that blank?  And if the thing is so important, don’t you think you can find the time?

Here’s something I’ve been playing with: scheduling two 2-hour blocks on my calendar every week for the really-important-stuff-that-I-really-should-do-more of.*  It’s probably not enough, but it’s a start.

This is about making your own time for your own most important stuff, because no one’s going to do that for you.  You don’t need permission or someone else making a deadline for you.  And you just discovered that you can make the time.


*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

*(I’m serious about the scheduling bit.  I just started doing it.  It makes a huge difference)

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