The fragility of generosity

I was talking to Katya Andresen about our preliminary plans for Generosity Day 2012, and she made a profound observation.  “Generosity” is a fragile thing: it’s impossible to talk about generosity without being vulnerable, impossible to be truly generous without opening yourself up.

It’s so easy for me to live in a safe place, to plan and to analyze and to do things that make a difference and that don’t expose me, that don’t run the risk of making me look silly.  The easiest way to cut down Generosity Day is to ask, “Yeah, but you work at a nonprofit that’s all about accountability.  I don’t get it,” or to be snarky about the soft-headedness of the whole undertaking.

The fact that Generosity Day (and my whole generosity experiment) cut against all of my analytical instincts was and is exactly the point.  It is a personal exploration of letting go in the face of wanting to hang on; of abundance in the face of scarcity; of connection in the face of separation.  Generosity Day doesn’t “make sense” any more than a work of art or a smile or something surprising and delightful make sense.  It’s not designed to withstand analytical rigor or flowcharts.  It can’t – I don’t think – be overplanned or over-designed or over-managed because it belongs to no one, because it is nothing more and nothing less than the expression of an idea whose time has come.  It is permission for people to act in a way they want to act.

With that in mind, what would you like to see happen on Generosity Day 2012?  Comments below are welcome or just email me here.

Better yet, in the spirit of the #Trust30 initiative, what are you ready to commit to for Generosity Day 2012?

Dear nonprofit

[Here’s the link to yesterday’s letter: Dear (potential) donor]

Dear nonprofit,

Speak up for yourself!  Don’t play the supplicant, tin cup in hand, hoping that some change will fall from that purse (or that pocket).  Your time is precious and the playing field is level.  You offer something of great value, both to the beneficiaries of your work and to your (potential) supporters.

Believe that and start treating yourself with the respect you deserve.  Believe that and start treating your potential supporters with the respect they deserve.   Be clear what you’re talking about and why, state out loud your hopes and expectations for where this conversation is going, risk saying early on what your goals are – knowing full well that the whole thing might crash and burn because you had the nerve to say something out loud that others were thinking.

It is true that the best partnerships take time to develop, that they can meander and take surprising twists and turns, that it’s not usually a straight line from here to there.  So be open, be generous, explore and share your dreams.

But by all means act like an equal partner in the endeavor, because you have so much to offer.

Sincerely yours,

Your (potential) donor

Dear (potential) donor

Dear (potential) donor,

Please, please, be careful and clear with your intentions, with your time, and with our time.  I know you don’t want any special treatment, and I know you don’t want different rules to apply to you…but they do.  (Nonprofit) folks will always take that extra, exploratory meeting with you, that broad-ranging conversation to better understand the sector, the work they’re doing, all the little intricacies that are their special sauce.  They’ll do it because they honestly want to share with you, and they’ll do it because it’s very difficult to tell the difference between a casual conversation and an active exploration of a partnership that leads to a funding decision.

(Worse than loose exploration, please, please, please, don’t make commitments that you cannot or will not keep.  There are few things more debilitating than that.)

It’s true, it really is their job – the nonprofit’s – to draw the line, to be clear, to ask you the tough questions.  But it’s a hard thing to do, and sometimes they won’t.  Sometimes they’ll talk and talk and talk, keeping that distant hope alive that sometime soon you’ll see that glimmer of what you’re looking for and decide to write a big check.  No, that’s not the only thing they see when they see you coming, but it is certainly part of what they see, and they’re going to give you more leeway than they would give to someone else.

So, please, explore, talk, brainstorm, ask questions, give advice, but also insist on clarity if they’re not being clear.  If you know you’re not planning to fund them, but the conversations are going great, you have a chance to speak up, to level set, to explain where things are and explain why you’re talking – because there are many ways to partner, and funding is just one of them.

You’ll be doing yourself and them a great service by speaking up.

Very truly yours,


[coming tomorrow: Dear Nonprofit]

We are living in a Thank You Economy

I just finished Gary Vaynerchuk’s book, The Thank You Economy, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s trying to make sense of what’s going on online right now, anyhow who has questions like: do Twitter and Facebook really mean anything?  Should I invest in these tools to build my business?  Can I really use these tools to stand out and to build strong relationships?

Gary’s vehement answers to these questions are: YES, YES, and YES!!!!

His forceful, compelling argument is that the game has changed forever.  Business used to be a small-town endeavor, where word of mouth spread quickly and where you had to treat all of your customers right – even the elderly woman who never bought much, because the hammer would fall on you if word got out that you treated her wrong.  Then big companies and mass marketing and TV advertising on 3 channels came, and for 50 years it made perfect economic sense for businesses to be impersonal and not to care.  And now we’re back to a world in which the only way to succeed is to build powerful, one-on-one relationships with our customers – the elderly woman has morphed into the person commenting on Yelp, posting to her blog, or tweeting to her 100,000 followers about how great or terrible your product or service was.

I found the book to be incredibly optimistic – Gary’s breathless enthusiasm is contagious, it is filled with enough practical examples to be actionable, and he pulls the lens back just enough to let you see that there’s something bigger going on than people uploading twitpics of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  One on one communication is back, it’s still in its infancy, and folks who wake up to this fact now will have an incredible lead on their competitors.

Gary’s case studies bring things to life.  He shares how, for a while, restaurant-reviewer Zagat’s missed the social media boat and, in so doing, allowed Yelp to build a site with 25 million unique visitors in December 2009 (to’s 270,000); this same month Yelp turned down a $550 million offer from Google and a $700 million offer from Microsoft (Zagat tried to sell for $200 million in January 2008 with no takers).  He describes the over-the-top efforts of Joie de Vivre hotel employees to make guests feels at home and special.  He surprises with stories of a dentist in San Francisco named Irena Vaksman who built her practice through online marketing; and a lawyer (a lawyer!) named Hank Heyming whose firm let him tweet and blog under his own name, and in so doing he became a leading startup lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.

The point of the book isn’t that you should passively stare at your Twitter and Facebook feeds for hours a day and call that work.  That ain’t work – that’s being a spectator.  This is a new undertaking requiring, first, a new attitude (caring like crazy about your customers), and then a specific strategy for building genuine relationships with these customers – in a way that blends online and offline experiences to create something exceptional.

Whether you’re someone who directly employs online tools or someone who has people asking for permission to do more online, this book will help you make sense of what’s going on out there in the big bad web 2.0 world – most importantly, by demystifying it and bringing it back to the simple, powerful notion that we can, finally, get back to the business of caring about and taking care of our customers.

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.

Keith Ferrazzi on trust, vulnerability, and deliberate relationship-building

Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back, gave a fascinating talk yesterday at The New York Forum (event livestream is here – the Forum is from June 20-21st, my panel is this afternoon).  It was a broad brush conversation about how human beings build connections with one another, and Keith gave a passionate argument in favor of being more intentional about how we build relationships.  (bonus: if you want to dig into this stuff, check out Keith’s Relationship Master’s Academy.)

Keith’s headline is that we should all have a “people plan” – a listing of the top 25 relationships that are most important to our long term success, and a commitment to investing substantially and intentionally in these relationships.  And here’s the part that I loved: Keith argued that the only way to be successful in investing in these relationships is to lead with generosity, to enter every conversation thinking about “how can I help?”  This is the polar opposite of figuring out what we can get, the opposite of thinking about how to close the sale, and (of course) the opposite of figuring out what we can GET.

The other big idea I was left with was that, as life becomes increasingly virtual and as job tenure decreases, the natural building of relationships that used to happen in business is disappearing.  For example, Keith shared a story of IBM getting rid of all of its sales offices – the expectation was that this would both decrease costs and allowing salespeople to have much more time at home and better work/life balance.  What they didn’t foresee was how much was lost – the intangible connective tissue of shared stories, the decompressing and complaining about customers or about management, the informal mentorship that used to happen at the local Bennigan’s on Thursday nights.  The result: the company scuttlebutt is that IBM, which used to stand for “I’ve Been Moved” (to the next regional office) now stands for “I’m By Myself.”

Keith’s suggestion is that, especially for the generation (mine) that didn’t grow up in a social media, online world, we have to make much more deliberate attempts to create connection, to be vulnerable, to create an environment of trust as a precursor to the “business at hand.”  Keith shared that at Cisco, a major user of Telepresence virtual conferencing, they have implemented personal/professional “check ins” in the first 5 minutes of all Telepresence meetings, because the natural swapping of personal stories that happens at the start of in-person conversations actually doesn’t happen when we have virtual conversations.

Just one example, and I’m not sure I’d follow this one to the letter.  But I love the broader idea: that if we want to innovate, if we want to have tough and real conversations about big strategic decisions, if we want to dig in to areas of uncertainty, we will be much more successful if we make deliberate investments in creating bonds of trust, no matter how far away our colleagues or our customers sit.

Every day it gets easier to skip this step: to fire off emails to people we barely know, focused on the tasks they need to complete; to hold global conference calls in which most people say almost nothing; to never, ever, pick up the phone to a key colleague sitting far away, not with an agenda, but just to talk and see how things are going.

By skipping these step, we skip investing in trust, and we relegate ourselves to exacerbating global/local tensions, where trust and rapport exists for workers in the same office and global bonds – far from being stronger, thanks to all of this technology – keep on getting weaker.

Secret weapon

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to break through all the clutter, to stand out from the mountain of emails in your customers’ inbox, to have your voice be a clarion call above the deluge of Tweets and Facebook updates?

Guess what, there is:  a mode of communication where instead of competing with 150 others’ messages in a day, it’s just you and maybe 1 or 2 other folks; it’s direct and gets people’s attention right at that moment; it’s a way to show that you care more than the other guy.

It’s called a telephone.

Yeah, that’s right.  Pick it up, dial the number, talk to another human being directly.

All those scheduling emails are a way to hide.  All those emails full of questions and a proposal that you find a time to discuss three weeks from Tuesday are an even better way to run away.

Today, pick up the phone three times (let’s start small) when you otherwise wouldn’t.  Call up a customer, impromptu, and talk to them.

That customer is getting 150 emails a day and 3 phone calls, and you’re wondering why you’re having trouble getting her attention?


One thing, many things


I was recently talking to a banker I know who shared that he occasionally works from home, but it can be frustrating because, due to security concerns, he is not allowed to print any documents when he’s not in the office.

Huh?  Not allowed to PRINT?  This is the more aggressive, more absurd version of companies that screen / limit Web access at work (because, you know, it’s not like people can get online with their smartphones), in the hopes that troves of people won’t fritter away hours on facebook or reading (gasp!) blogs full of idle chatter.

At the other end of the spectrum, all of the most interesting, successful people I know have multi-faceted lives that pull them in all directions.  They run companies and serve on multiple Boards and convene interesting groups of their peers.  They write books or blogs – sometimes directly about what they do and sometimes, apparently, only tangentially related.  They thrive in ambiguous situations that blur the line between work and social and fun.

I know that real constraints exist in the world, that big companies are victim to frivolous lawsuits, that running a 100,000 person company isn’t the same thing as running a 100 person shop.

So fine, let’s operate within these constraints.

But as a boss (or as someone who has a boss), you have a choice to make.  One worldview says it’s your job to control and narrow as much as possible, to monitor and restrict and keep track of shirkers, so that you’re sure that that your staff spends as much time as possible doing “their work” (whatever that means to you).  This is a great approach if you believe that your staff is comprised of glorified, white-collar widget producers, if you believe that you’re putting $X in to pay their salary and that success is getting as many of your employees as possible to produce 1.5X in terms of output.

Man, it’s exhausting just writing that.

Treat people like shirkers and they’ll want to shirk more.  Treat their time like a finite resource that you have to grab as much of as possible and you’ll get the least allowable effort and no inspiration.

What you should really worry about is employees who don’t get great new ideas from the outside; employees who don’t come in rabid and crazy with something they just read on a blog; employees who don’t make random, interesting connections that bring surprising, wonderful people into the fold.

You certainly can’t manufacture creativity and inspiration, but you definitely can wipe it out.

Is ______ an impact investor?

On Monday I had the chance to speak at the iiSummit on Impact Investing,  organized by Kellogg and the Chicago Booth School.  It is exciting to see the level of interest in impact investing growing everywhere (beyond the obvious hotbeds of New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC).  The goal of the conference was to explore how the tools of impact investing could be applied in the Midwest.

During one of the conference breaks, I had a conversation with a student who wanted my take on whether Bank Rakyat Indonesia, the Indonesian microfinance bank where I worked a decade ago, is an impact investor.

I was and continue to be stumped by the question, and I think the question sheds light on a worrisome trend in our space.

Let me explain.

What the question seemed to be about was whether BRI aims to have social impact, specifically because the interest rates are “high” (~25% p.a.); because it does collateralized lending (as opposed to group lending); and because, it was implied, BRI is highly profit-seeking.

My take on BRI is a little different: 25% p.a. interest rates are in line with global microfinance interest rates (so I have trouble arguing that they should be lower); limiting itself to collateralized lending does mean that BRI is likely serving the better-off segment of low-income customers, but these customers still clearly have a need for these services;  and, at least when I was there, BRI had a 4:1 ratio of savings to lending – which is only possible because it is a regulated financial institution.   Since I personally think that savings might be more powerful to the poor than lending as a tool to smooth consumption and have capital available for big expenditures (which is really what a lot of microlending is all about), I think this a really big deal.  So, in sum, I’m a fan of BRI from what I saw when I worked there.

But I digress.

What the question got me thinking about was that, rather than asking, “Do you think that BRI is having significant, positive social impact?” the question was “Is BRI an impact investor?”

The implication seemed to be that “impact investing,” as the coolest, hottest trend in our space, is a proxy phrase for doing good work, a notion that was reinforced by the numerous speakers who qualified lots of worthwhile, not-so-new activities (negative screen, public market investing first pioneered by Domini; positive screen, public market investing best represented by Generation Investment Management; CRA lending everywhere; everything that OPIC has done for the last few decades) as “impact investing.”

Personally, I don’t care what is or is not “impact investing.”  What I care about is whether we are creating positive social change.

Impact investing, to me, is nothing more and nothing less than the use of investment tools for social ends. Our collective “aha moment” was the realization that investors can strike a deal with sources of capital whereby social impact goals are made explicit.  This allows investors (stewards of others’ capital) to pursue social goals without shirking their fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits.   Volia, we have more tools (not just grants) that we can use to pursue social impact.

This is simple enough and hard to disagree with.

But from this perspective, I find myself discouraged by the “finance first” and “impact first” terminology that’s become popular in our space.  It feels trite.  Isn’t the whole point of “impact investing” the “impact” piece?  Without that you have investing – which can create all sorts of impacts (positive and negative; financial and social).  But either you set out to create positive social change or you don’t.  The idea that you’d set out to create only a little positive social change…what exactly does that mean?

I don’t want to know whether you or I or anyone else is an impact investor. I want to know how much social impact you and I are creating with a dollar (or a euro, or a rupee, or a shilling, or whatever).  Everything else, to me, is just old wine in new bottles.

I am the decisive element

My wife reminded me of this powerful quote from Goethe, via Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog.  It’s worth returning to daily.

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides…

Happy Friday.