Wow! We did it.

Thanks to all of you and to friends around the world, today my birthday wish came true!

Goal: raise $720 for Acumen Fund online in 5 days

Result as of 2:49pm 11:59pm, Aug 28, 2009:   $810.72 $968.72 raised ($380 $538 on Facebook Causes; $430.72 directly to Acumen Fund)

Unexpected result: learning by doing; seeing what does and doesn’t work with direct fundraising appeals; being touched and moved by old friends, readers, and family who chose to participate in ways large and small.

I’m off to celebrate.  Have a great weekend, and thank you for all you did.

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Sales 101

Mea culpa.  I fell into the oldest trap in the sales book.  I did a good job of explaining a need, and then I asked my blog readers to give to Acumen Fund before this Friday.

But I let you all down, so I wanted to apologize.  I didn’t explain the most important thing.

This is about YOU.



The person reading this blog post.

Right now.

Not anyone else.


And it’s about NOW, because if you click to the next blog post, you won’t come back to do this, and I know you want to.

You’re probably one of the hundreds of people who read this blog daily.

I know you care about making the world a better place.  I know you care about fairness and justice and I know you want to be part of something bigger than yourself (we all do).  So I let you down by not helping you do that – by making clear that this is about YOU doing something NOW.

Not anybody else, and not any other time.

Go here (Acumen Fund site) or here (Facebook causes).  The $36 increment is optional but fun.

Make a statement.  Give.  Whatever amount you can.  You will be happy you did, I promise.  And it will mean a lot to me and to you.

Here’s our story, in 18 minutes.

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First to 100

I’ve been trying to teach my 5 ½ year old son to play tennis.  Our typical session has been short – usually less than 10 minutes – so progress has come in fits and starts.  Last week, I could tell he was starting to lose interest in our standard drill: me standing 5 feet away from him, bouncing the ball to him for him to hit.

So we invented a new game: I moved across the net, stood at the service line, and hit balls to him at the other service line.  Each time he connected with the ball he got a point.  Each time he missed entirely, I got a point.  Then we spiced things up: each time he hit the ball over the net and hit it in the court, he got two points.

This was a big deal.  Suddenly, his waning attention transformed into pointed questions about the rules and the point system.  He decided he wanted to get to 100 points and he began angling for a lot of things to count for 2 points – a ball that first bounced on his side or a ball that landed in the doubles alley, for example.

Interesting.  I had created an arbitrary system with an arbitrary set of rules (which I made up as I went along).  But in his eyes, it was my job to define the rules of the game, and he’d decided he wanted to win at this game.  I had suddenly become judge and jury on allocating something that was free for me to give out and mattered a lot to him.  Needless to say, he got a lot of free two-pointers (final score of game 1: he trounced me 137-37).

Seem like a far flung example?  It strikes me that this tennis court parable is an awful lot like work environments, where managers create (inadvertently or not) point systems that are no less arbitrary than the one I created on the tennis court.  These points aren’t just about money, they’re about attention and opportunities and consultation and respect.  What’s valued and sought after will vary depending on the culture of your organization.  But you can be sure that, to anyone who values the work they do, the currency your culture trades in matters to them.

It was unbelievably easy for me to be generous with my son in giving out points.  What about at work?  If you have the respect of your colleagues and peers, then they’re watching you just as closely, and once the rules of the game are defined, you have the option of being generous or stingy in giving “points,” not just to people who work for you, but for peers and even for supervisors.  It’s something everybody values, and cultivating your own genuineness and generosity here is one of the easiest ways to motivate, energize and inspire those you hope to lead.

(P.S. Still reading?  Please think about helping me fulfill my birthday wish by giving to Acumen Fund.)

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My birthday wish

My 36th birthday is coming up this Friday.  One of my clearest memories as a child is of my father as a 36 year-old. Through my six-year-old eyes, that age stuck in my mind as the age of a real grown-up. Now that I’m turning 36 this Friday, it doesn’t feel exactly the way I expected it would, so I’m hoping to start the year off with a bang. I am donating my birthday to Acumen Fund, where I work (when I’m not blogging). So I’d like your help.

I would love if you could make a gift to Acumen Fund. You can do it through Facebook Causes, or directly on Acumen Fund’s website.  You can say it’s for my birthday or just give in some increment of 36.  So even if you don’t have a lot to give, you could give $3.60.  Or you could give $36 or $360, or….you get the idea.

Why give?  There are a lot of reasons, many of which Seth summed up unbelievably well last week.  For me, I know that two-thirds of the world’s population lives on less than $4 a day – which is about the price of a Starbuck’s coffee.  And I know that these 4 billion people, 4 out of every 6 people on the planet, have as many hopes and dreams and as much potential and dignity as the 2 billion people who are fortunate enough to have been born outside of the clutches of poverty.

More than that, I think for the first time in history we have the tools at our disposal to break the back of poverty, by finding solutions that blend the best of philanthropy and the markets to find answers to the big problems in the world – like maternal mortality and malaria and safe drinking water and sanitation and having a safe place to live.

So help me make my birthday wish come through with a donation.  If nothing else, it’s a nice way to let me know that you’re out there and that you enjoy reading, which means a lot.

I think it’s possible to make a better world, and think part of the reason you read this blog is because you believe that too.  So thank you for reading, and thank you for making my birthday wish come true.

Before iPod Genius, there was Shuffle…and it was good enough

One of the many clever iPod/iPhone features is “Genius,” which automatically creates a playlist of related songs based on a song that you pick. You pick a song by the Police and you’ll get a playlist with U2 and Sting and Bob Marley.

Apparently, Genius is pretty sophisticated, but I don’t think it has to be.  The first 10% of accuracy would be enough, because our minds would tell the story that would do the rest of the work.  Need proof?  Back when we all had to settle for Shuffle – a completely random playlist created from songs from your music library – people would inevitably claim that their iPod was psychic, somehow “knowing” the right song to play at the exact right moment.

The point?  Our minds (specifically, our right brains) are constantly trying to make sense of information by telling a story that’s consistent with whatever we’re seeing.  You cannot walk through the woods and make sense of every individual tree…you’d go crazy.  So you process a few trees until your mind tells you, “This is a forest.”

In the same way, it’s enchanting to think that a mindless iPod knows the perfect song to play at the party.  It’s your mind picking out what it wants to see.

For you left-brain, analytical people out there, who are persuaded by (and want to persuade others using) mostly facts and logic, it’s easy to forget how much your audience needs a story.   By imagining your own mind and how you process information – and the sequence of facts that would make sense to you – you completely abandon something powerful that is working in your favor: that the person sitting across from you, hearing these facts for the very first time, wants nothing more than to tell themselves a story.  It’s the best way for them to make sense of what you are saying.

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Darn breakthroughs

Turns out they only happen after you’ve been chipping away for so long and working so hard, you almost forget what it felt like when you started.

Next chisel, please…

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Too much nonprofit marketing?

Zeenat Potia, who now works at and blogs for Oxfam America, started her career in book publishing.  In her first year in the book business, Zeenat would often be asked at parties whether she was an editor, and she’d say no, that she was in marketing.  But:

“I did not like casting myself as a marketer because their inevitable response would be a smug, quasi-judgmental “ah.”

The premise: the editors do the high-status, high-value work (finding manuscripts, editing them, working with the authors); the marketers are just peddlers.  And look where the book business is today.  What’s the right balance between editorial and sales & marketing?  I don’t know, but I’d guess that it’s in the ballpark of 50/50, not the 90/10 or 80/20 that I’d guess it is in the book business (at least from a status perspective, maybe from a time and effort and honing of craft perspective too).  The goal is to find great books and get them into the hands of readers, isn’t it?

Zeenat makes the right analogy to the nonprofit world: just swap out “editors / marketers” with “program staff / development staff” and you get the exact same equation.  “Program” is where the people who do the “real” work go, the ones with the PhDs who really know what’s going on and what works.  The development staff just run off and package the “real work.”  Ancillary and low status.

This is what gives space for Zeenat’s question.  Marketing is “just selling,” right?  So you should do just enough to be able to do the real work.  It’s possible to do too much marketing, right?

Probably, but I bet that there’s not a single iPhone owner (or craver) out of the 22 million owners in the United States who discusses whether Apple is wasting its money on “all that marketing.”   Same goes for Amazon.  And Virgin.  And probably even Wal-Mart. Same even went for GE in the heyday years of Jack Welch (the story was just different).

When done right, marketing helps us discover solutions to our problems, influences how people see the world, and helps them make decisions.  When done wrong, it’s peddling something someone doesn’t quite need and quickly regrets buying.

Let us not, as a sector, fall into the trap of listening to critics who say that we should minimize the dollars, effort, brain power, and ingenuity that goes into everything but the “real” work (programs).  In so doing, we risk forgetting that our role is BOTH to find solutions to the persistent problems of inequality and injustice and malnutrition and infant mortality and safe drinking water and AIDS and malaria…AND to figure out how to explain to the world that these problems matter, that we have the tools to solve them, and that if was have the tools to solve them, then we must all act.

It’s not easy.  But that’s marketing.

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The answer-outcome paradox

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gap between finding the right answers and getting to the right outcomes.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine was working for a think tank that was hired to consult for the Ministry of Education of a small country.  The team, which was made up mostly of PhDs who specialize in education, was asked to create the blueprint, design, and launch of the country’s higher education system.  I was petrified to imagine a group of researchers being asked to create a living system that would consistently deliver high-quality educational outcomes.

The premise was that the people who knew most (analytically) about higher education would be the best people to solve this problem.

I’m a problem-solving kind of guy, so it’s taken a combination of observation, deduction, and advice from peers and mentors for me to come around to the idea that the analytical skills I’d been trained to develop all my life – from school grades to the SATs and GMATs to the whole system of admission to college and graduate school – aren’t the end game, they’re the starting point.

You’d never guess this was the case by looking at our institutions of higher education, which by and large are run by professors who are mostly in the answer-finding business.  It’s true that there is an occasional nod to things like team-building, communication and influencing skills, coaching, self-reflection, etc., but these inevitably are billed as “soft” skills somehow different and apart from the hard (read: real) skills that matter.

If you’re an “answers” kind of person, it a cop-out to blame poor outcomes on others’ inability to see the solution you saw all along.  If a path not taken – one that you believed in – was the right one, then the first question to ask was what you could have done differently to get your team, or your organization, to that outcome.

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Frankly my dear…

At a NYC Middle Eastern place where I sometimes grab lunch, I get to-go plate with some stewed chicken and vegetables, beans or okra, and brown rice, all for $6.50.  This is the steal of a lifetime in Manhattan.

They pack it in a round, aluminum takeout container with a plastic top, and place the container in a paper bag within a plastic bag  (it’s a lot of wrapping).

Today, a sunny day, I took the bag, walked halfway down the block, and sat down outside to enjoy a little sun with my lunch.  When I went to grab my food, there was a pool of sauce at the bottom the bag, and the container was dripping wet.  And, for once (when it has to do with spilling things), this wasn’t my fault: the container had been put into the small paper bag on its side, and everything drained out immediately.

This might have been a small mistake by a new person at the cash register, or it might have been how they do things every day (it’s happened before).  What it feels like is that they’ve gotten things 90% right but haven’t actually taken that last step to understand the full customer experience.  They’re incredibly nice, they treat customers right in the restaurant, they clearly make their food with care…but when I spill broth all over the place just trying to eat my lunch,  repeatedly, it feels like they don’t care about their customers.

That’s the kicker: you may care passionately about your customers, but they might not know!

They easiest way to fix this is to ask them what they think.  In person.  And listen to their answers sincerely.  For example:

  • If you’re a teacher, could you call up a parent and asked what she and her son or daughter think about the class you teach?
  • If you’re a customer service rep, can you go off script and ask the “Did I solve your problem today satisfactorily” in a sincere way, with a follow-up question?
  • If you work at a nonprofit, could you call up 10 of your donors and ask what they really think about the organization, and what their experience is as major supporters?
  • If a regular lunch customer comes in, could you ask how their sandwich was last week?
  • And if you’re a blogger, could you email the five people who comment the most on your blog and ask them for some feedback?

If you give this a go, and you’re genuine, at the very least your customers will feel more valued and they’ll know that you actually care.  More likely still, you’ll probably learn at least one thing you could change that will make big a difference to a lot of folks.

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My iPhone story…finally

Change is hard, right?  Or maybe not.  So here’s the experiment.  I’ve been a heavy (obsessive?) Blackberry user for almost a decade.  And I’ve been fawning over the iPhone since it came out two years ago.  But I kept on convincing myself that the Blackberry won hands down for everything I needed (mostly sending and receiving email), so it didn’t matter that the  iPhone would win for everything I wanted.

A few days ago, I caved, barreled into the Apple store, and bought an iPhone.  Why?

The starting point is the story.  Apple has woven a captivating story about an uber-device that will make me more hip, more connected, and generally part of the ‘in’ crowd (never mind that they’ve sold more than 21 million so far– the story just isn’t true any more, objectively.  But it can still be true to me).  I’ve come across this iPhone story literally hundreds of times, not just in mass media, but every time I see yet another pair of white earbuds (which I used to see often) or people gazing longingly at their iPhones on NY street corners (more common now).  And even though I said ‘no thanks’ a hundred times, on the hundred and first time, I said ‘yes.’ That was Story #1.

Now on to Story #2, which started when I bought the iPhone.  This is the story I’m telling myself now that I’ve given in.  The story is, “I love this thing, never mind the typing and switching applications and the battery life, and some sync hiccups,  and, and, and…”  The long story Apple told me about how much I was going to love the iPhone has turned into a story I tell myself about how much I do love the iPhone (30 day return policy be damned).  Every time I find something frustrating about the iPhone, I explain away the cognitive dissonance in one way or another.

All a helpful reminder of how many stories are at play in every customer (donor) relationship.  The right (and the wrong) stories keep on replaying, morphing, and multiplying, and your customers spend time looking to reinforce the stories you tell – and the ones they tell themselves – at every turn.

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