Eighth class

It almost goes without saying that airlines have taken customer service to new lows.  Even with this in mind, American Airlines surprised me at 6am Monday morning.

The boarding call began: “We would like all First Class customers to board at this time.”

And then, “Business Class customers are welcome to board.”

And then, “AAdvantage Executive Platinum customers can now board.”

And on down the line: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Group 1, Group 2, Group 3….after eight groups had been called, there I was standing together with about five other people who were left, and the gate agent may as well have said, “All right, I guess you all can get on the plane now too.”

It is easy to get lured into the concentric circles of customer segmentation and differentiated service, but it only works if the system is invisible to the customer.

Of course on some level I know and expect that there are people who get red carpet treatment, but that’s different than breaking the basic bargain that says: if you are our customer, we are going to treat you with respect and try to earn your business again.

Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?

There is power in asking the right question, and Seth Godin’s new book, “Linchpin” hits you over the head with a question that it’s impossible to run away from:

Are you Indispensable?

Because, now, for a short period of time, you can be (Seth explains why in the book).  And since you can be, why aren’t you?  There are lots of reasons, and the book gets to the guts of them, digging into fear and our lizard brains and the misconceptions that we need a map and that we’re here to do jobs rather than to do the work.  This book will grab you and shake you and open doors to all the things you know in your heart you can do.

This isn’t your everyday book, so it’s fitting that Seth isn’t doing an everyday book launch.  Instead, the book is being launched with a web ring of blog interviews with Seth instead of a typical media tour.  You can see all the posts from the ring on Squidoo.

Here’s why Seth’s doing it this way, in his own words:

I’m not reaching out to any radio stations, any television, any newspapers. Not one.  I’ve come to the conclusion that the long tail is longer and more powerful than ever before, and the engine of that tail is us, the bloggers…I think it’s going to be an interesting experiment in momentarily coordinating the threads of the net, flowing traffic in and around an idea as it travels from one blog to another.

Like so many people, I learn from Seth every day, so it’s exciting to be able to share my interview with Seth here, and more exciting still to be able to share this amazing book with my readers.  This book is a keeper, so why not get yourself a copy?

Here’s the interview:

Sasha:  Do you remember the first really big thing you ever gave away?  How did it feel?

Seth: When I was in college, I co-founded a business that grew to be the biggest student run business in the country… 10% of the students at my college worked for our temporary employment agency. We had all these crazy businesses: birthday cake delivery, a snack bar, a concert bureau. And did it basically for free, working 40 hours a week for $50. People said I was crazy, that work was work and I should get paid. But for me, the act of generosity that came from showing up all the time for free transformed it from a job to a mission. That sense of mission, of making change because it’s important, of doing work because others benefit–I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

Sasha: Why do you think it’s so hard for people to bring their whole selves to work?

Seth: Bringing your whole self to anything… work, a relationship, even cooking dinner… is dangerous because failure or rejection is real. You can’t say, “I wasn’t really trying,” because you were. You can’t say, “it doesn’t really matter,” because it does. The resistance, the pre-historic lizard brain voice in the back of your head, the part that’s responsible for survival and fear… that little voice insists that you hold back, because holding back feels safe. And in the days of the saber tooth tiger, that was probably smart. But today, in a competitive world where holding back means failure, it’s just stupid.

Sasha: Say there are 100,000 people acting like linchpins today.  What does the world look like when that number jumps to 10 million or 100 million?

Seth: The old, “but if everyone does this” problem! Trust me, we’re not going to have a crowded surplus of generous artists any time soon. Just as Purple Cow didn’t make every product remarkable, and The Dip didn’t transform everyone into a smart quitter, Linchpin is not going to be so successful that the economy turns upside down. There’s a window that’s open, and it’s going to be open for a little while: the world desperately needs people willing to stand up and be counted, willing to do work that matters, willing to invent instead of following the rules. That’s my message. There’s a moment, and it’s here for a while. Take it or leave it…

Sasha: People are more empowered than ever to be linchpins.  But it also feels like fear and greed are more rewarded than ever.  Which wins?

Seth: Fear is not rewarded, not at all. Fear gets you laid off. Fear leads to small thinking. Greed has always been a smart short-term strategy, but my sense is that the short term is getting shorter than ever. Greed used to be a valid strategy for a lifetime or a decade. But as we’re seeing in one industry after another, the half-life for greed keeps getting shorter. Plus, and it’s a big plus, it feels better to be generous.

Sasha: If you could rewrite the 1st grade curriculum, what would it look like?  6th grade? 11th grade?  College?

Seth: All the same: solve interesting problems. When was the last time you saw a classroom of students solving interesting problems?

Check out the rest of the interviews here.

The tears of a father

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters-Landov

Eduardo Munoz took this photograph of a man in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, carrying his dead daughter.  It ran in this week’s Newsweek and you can see the full series, “Faces of Tragedy,” on Newsweek’s website.

This man is about my age.  He looks a lot like me.  His daughter is only a little younger than mine.

When I came across this picture last night I couldn’t stop staring at it.  I’m paralyzed with sadness for this man.  My heart is broken.  Why him? No one should experience this kind of suffering or loss.

I don’t have any conclusions here.  I just wanted to share the experience, and the sobering reminder that each and every person that I read about – in Haiti or anywhere in the world – is as real as I am.  Each person was born with the same universal human rights.  Each child had dreams and imagination.  Each parent loved their child.

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Giving is as fun as sex

Apparently it’s true. From Nick Kristoff’s recent op-Ed:

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

A young colleague of mine set out over the weekend to raise money to support Haiti.  She and a small group of friends walked the length of Manhattan (15 miles) with the goal of raising $500.  So far they’ve raised $7,500 and counting.

Why has she raised more than 15 times her goal?  It’s because her “ask” (“sponsor my walk in support of Haiti”) was really two gifts to her friends and network, since they:

  1. Are looking for a way meaningfully to support those affected in Haiti
  2. Appreciate and want to support her personally, for the work that she does and the person that she is.

One of the most powerful things you can do is to reframe what it means to ask someone to give, to remember that as much as they are supporting you, that you are giving them a gift.  You are providing them with a solution.  Better yet, you may be helping them become the person they want to be.

And, hey, it may just be as fun as sex.

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You can decide that this is work and that is play.

That every time you do a little extra, someone else is getting the best of you.

That you’re making tradeoffs each and every step of the way.

Just remember that it’s you who’s doing the judging.  Which means that some day (maybe today) you can choose to decide that you’re judging right – and do something about it – or decide that it’s time to start telling yourself a different story.

Don’t be afraid to thrive.

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A moment of silence for Haiti, and what we can do

More than 100,000 are feared dead in the earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday.  You can see the damage at the Boston Globe’s Big Picture.

The immediate generosity and speed of the response to the 7.0 earthquake is moving.  The Red Cross alone raised more than $1 million in $10 increments in a campaign backed by the U.S. State Department.

As much as we need a swift and immediate response for the millions of people affected, a complete response will also help address the longer-term needs of the Haitian people.

This letter I received from Eric Kesseler and Bruce Boyd at Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors felt exceptionally thoughtful and helpful, so I’m sharing its content in full:

Dear Sasha,

As you have no doubt heard, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, just 10 miles from the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. While we have already communicated with you recently, we thought that the crisis in Haiti warranted an additional, immediate email update.

Our resident disaster philanthropy expert, Regine Webster, has been tracking the latest news from Haiti since the crisis began. Here’s what we now know, and what you need to know as you consider your philanthropic response.


Up to 3 million people could be affected by this earthquake, the worst in 200 years. Phone lines are down, main roadways are impassable, and electricity is only sporadically available. Urgent needs include search and rescue teams, logistics and telecommunications support, primary care services, emergency health supplies, temporary shelter, and water purification. Haiti’s population is also particularly vulnerable to the manmade shocks that often follow natural disasters: severe hurricanes in December 2008, coupled with pre-existing poverty and political instability, had already weakened community resources.

Governments worldwide are responding to the current disaster by sending search and rescue teams, goods, and money. Relief organizations are likewise ramping up their efforts and sending out calls for support. Clients and contacts of ours have reached out to us to ask for the latest information and our recommendations. Here are some key considerations to bear in mind.

Recommendations for Philanthropists

  • Support medium- to long-term recovery efforts that “Build it Better.” Most donors will see the stirring images from Haiti and react today, donating dollars that are allocated for emergency humanitarian relief. Relief activities are obviously critical, but they do not address the need for longer-term recovery, which will require even more dollars and receive far less attention. Donors should consider making longer-term investments. They should also consider making their investments more strategic by following the Hurricane Katrina response mantra, “Build it Better.” In Haiti, donors can provide financial support to improve the water and sanitation infrastructure, education system, housing stock, access to healthcare, and more.
  • Support organizations with a long-standing history of development work in Haiti. Many international organizations have a decades-long presence in Haiti, providing development programs across a range of sectors. These organizations have well-established relationships with local communities and community-based organizations. Supporting these organizations maximizes existing expertise and response capacity and minimizes the learning curve associated with working in a complex disaster environment.
  • Add disaster funding to an existing mission. Donors can most effectively leverage their resources for responding to the Haitian earthquake by tapping their in-house expertise. For example, a foundation whose mission is to support shelter can focus on rebuilding homes in earthquake-affected communities. Recovery needs in Haiti will span all sectors: environment, agriculture, shelter, water and sanitation, education, protection, health care, etc. You can help best where you know the most.
  • Support disaster-risk reduction. Advance preparation and early warning systems help reduce the damage disasters cause. As Haitians work to rebuild their communities following this natural disaster, preparedness needs for future emergencies should be taken into account. This includes support for alert and communication systems, disaster-proof construction, agricultural planning, and operational contingency planning.

Potential Candidates for Support

Arabella Advisors rarely makes blanket endorsements of nonprofit organizations, but because of the pressing nature of this crisis, we are making a partial exception today. Among the many well-qualified local and international organizations focused on this crisis, the following organizations look well-positioned to help in Haiti, based on our initial research and past experience with disaster-recovery funding.

  • CARE – With an active presence in Haiti since 1954, CARE’s work there focuses on HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, maternal and child health, education, food security, and water and sanitation.
  • Catholic Relief Services (CRS) – CRS has more than 50 years of experience in Haiti and currently serves some 200,000 of the poorest and most marginalized Haitians in the areas of health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS, agriculture, peace building and migration.
  • Oxfam – With a staff of 200, including a 15-member emergency response team, Oxfam International brings expertise in water, sanitation and public health in Haiti, as well as local knowledge and community networks established over the past decade.
  • PLAN – Having worked in Haiti since 1973, PLAN currently implements child-centered community development programs featuring Health, Education for Girls and Boys, HIV/AIDS, and the Rights of the Child.
  • Save the Children – Having worked in Haiti since 1985, primarily in Port-au-Prince and the Central Plateau region, Save the Children provides health, education, protection and food security programs to vulnerable children.

Additional Resources

Our sense is that a vast amount of information will soon be available on the crisis in Haiti. Insofar as we discover further information that is useful to philanthropists and not readily available, we will be sure to share it with you. In the meantime, feel free to call or email us if you have questions. And please feel free to share this update with anyone who may find it helpful.


Bruce Boyd and Eric Kessler

email: info@arabellaadvisors.com
web: http://www.arabellaadvisors.com

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We’ve got more to offer than 3%

If we ever needed proof that raising capital is one of the biggest, most important challenges facing promising young innovators in the social sector, here it is: Kjerstin Erickson, Jon Gosier, and Saul Garlick, all promising 20-something leaders of new social ventures, are each offering up 3% of their lifetime income in exchange for a $300,000 investment in them and the nonprofits they’re building.   They’ve created the ThrustFund to raise a total of $1.2M in unrestricted philanthropic capital ($600k, $300k and $300k respectively) in $3,000 increments, and have created a contract to manage the payout of their future lifetime income to their “investors.”

This is definitely smart marketing: it’s innovative, it’s headline-grabbing, and I bet it will get them the visibility they’re looking for.  And without a doubt they’re all courageous and they’re putting themselves out there.

But it doesn’t sit right with me.  I’m worried that this plays into and amplifies the exact power imbalance that we need to re-imagine – the story of the successful, wealthy, powerful philanthropist and the struggling nonprofit CEO, hat in hand, who literally is offering up a part of himself and his earning potential in exchange for an investment in his dream.

And this is a very small view of the value that nonprofits offer (and I’m not talking here about social versus economic value).

Thoughtful philanthropists are looking to make real, important, lasting change in the world, and through their philanthropy have the potential to realize personal growth, development, connection and legacy.  Yet unless the philanthropist is going to become a front-lines operator of a nonprofit/social venture, she has no choice but to realize these aspirations through her philanthropic investments.   Put another way, great nonprofits are uniquely positioned to enable the philanthropists to realize their own dreams and aspirations.  As much as nonprofits need great philanthropic investors, philanthropic investors need great nonprofits.  And this is a good thing for everyone.

Which is why, no matter what the contract says about a termination clause and the exact terms of the payout, the story of selling 3% of your lifetime income to a philanthropic investor seems to reinforce all the old ideas.

It says, to me, that the value that promising leaders like Kjerstin, Jon and Saul bring to the world is easily bought in a simple transaction.  It says that the answer to finding partners to back your dream can best be realized by tapping into a little bit more greed (“maybe I’ll get my $3,000 back…or even make a profit!”).  It says that someone who has $3,000 to give isn’t already getting enough in return – for themselves and for the world – when they back someone willing to work 20-hour days, 7 days a week, in pursuit of a dream whose main payback is improving the lives of others.

I wish Kjerstin, Jon and Saul great success.  And I know that we can and we must do better than this.

The 17 second story

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve had 30 minute calls with people who are exploring interesting new vehicles for raising capital in the nonprofit sector.  Yet in both cases, it took 17 minutes (I counted) to get to the core of what the opportunity was.  We lost more than half the time in the lead-up, and this with the people whose job it is to sell the story.  (And whether you’re a CEO or a job-seeker, it is your job to sell the story).

This is an easy trap to fall in to, because you want to dig in to the nuts and bolts so much.  But when you lose the headline, you lose the inspiring vision, you lose the thing that’s going to give this thing legs.  You don’t have 17 minutes, you have 17 seconds.

This isn’t a post about nailing the 17-second elevator pitch for your organization – who you are, what you do, why it matters – although everyone from your Board to your CEO to each employee must be able to articulate this effectively.  In a world where you’re constantly leading and innovating, where you’re tearing through projects because you’re getting so much done, you have to keep on developing and refining and changing your 17-second story.  Nailing this consistently is one of the arts of leadership.

It’s about having, at your fingertips, the answer to the same question in many guises: “What is the most pressing question you’re facing right now?” or “what’s your greatest need?” or “what keeps you up at night?” or “what’s new”?

Any of these in 17 seconds.

So, what’s new?

The poverty box

Today I registered for a conference and had to check a box about my “area of interest,” so I check off “International Development / poverty.”

And then I realized why only 23% of U.S. philanthropy goes to international causes.1 We’re stuck in this box.   The one that has you pick from:  Human rights /  Conflict resolution / Women’s issues / Education /  Healthcare / Infrastructure / Policy reform / Judicial reform / Poverty alleviation (CHECK) / Etc….

The “how” is so much less important than the “why” in making people understand how urgent this is.

The box I want to check says: “I’m in the business of creating a different world, one in which the 7 out of 10 people globally who are struggling for survival can instead become artists and engineers and teachers and entrepreneurs and CEOs and judges and architects and software programmers and Presidents and mothers who don’t worry if their children will survive to age 5.  I’m in the business of realizing the potential of all of the 6.7 billion people on this earth, and not just the 2 billion who were born in the right place at the right time.”

Yeah, that’s the box I want to check.

NOTE 1: the 23% number comes from Jane Wales, and if anyone knows this statistic it’s her.  I honestly thought the number was much lower.  Does anyone have a source for this number?

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Generosity experiment revisited

A few weeks ago I started a generosity experiment.  The idea, sparked by a homeless man to whom I did not give, was to spend a period of time saying ‘yes’ to all requests to give – whether a person on the street, a donation request from a nonprofit, whatever.

Some people, like Jeff, really hated the idea at first (“AHH! NOO! STOP!” was his initial reaction); others shared my sense that the practice of being generous itself was inherently valuable.

A month later, I’m glad for the experiment.  I gave more than I normally do and I gave more often.  And it felt good and right, especially during the holidays, a time when presents of all sorts were flying in all directions.

And while I won’t continue giving to virtually everyone who asks, I will give more and more often.  The practice of being generous instead of critical (discerning?) is, I have found, important for at least two reasons:  first, we are how we act, so if I can habitually act more generous, I will be and become a more generous person.  Second, the experiment served as a deeper exploration of how much giving is an act of self-expression, rather than (or in addition to) a “purchase” of a social outcome.

The people who didn’t like my experiment all said something like, “If I pass a person on the street asking for money, I don’t give because I know it makes more sense to give to a homeless shelter.”  Put another way, one could better purchase social change for a homeless person by giving to a shelter or a food bank.   Objectively, that’s probably true (though one doesn’t know for sure).  However, it also misses something: first, because whether or not you give a dollar or two to a person on the street really doesn’t affect the larger donation you’ll hopefully make to the homeless shelter or the food bank; second, because the act of saying ‘no’ over and over again is reinforcing something in you and in me.

I’m not saying give every time, I’m asking us to be honest about why we do and don’t give, and to recognize the effect it has on us.

Let’s take an extreme example: suppose that over the course of the year I’m asked to give 200 times – maybe 100 times directly and 100 times by various nonprofits in various ways.  And let’s say I have a limited amount of money to give, which I do.  Isn’t the practice of saying ‘no’ 195 times and ‘yes’ 5 times reinforcing a mindset and habit that I’m the kind of person who says no when people ask for help?  And couldn’t there be a way to say “yes” 15 or 50 or 100 times that would reinforce something else entirely?

I don’t want to take this too far – to the conclusion that all philanthropists should spread their funding widely so that they can practice saying ‘yes.’  That’s not right either.

But I do want to push myself and others to ask whether it is healthy to think of every giving decision from the head rather than from the heart.  Can’t the argument that “this isn’t the best use of my money” be paralyzing or, worse, an excuse never to part with any money, because nothing is ever good enough?

Maybe a request for a gift isn’t always chance to analyze what is or isn’t the “best” use of my money.  Instead, maybe a request for a gift is an opportunity to practice being the person that I want to be – someone whose first response is to be open and generous.

And maybe, with practice, I will be transformed in a way that is powerful for me and for the world.

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