What page are you on?

A lot of people with whom I regularly trade ideas are reading Walter Isaacson’s page-turning biography of Steve Jobs.

And so for the first time I find myself frustrated with all the limitations on sharing capabilities in e-Readers (I’m using the Kindle app on an iPad).  I can’t even email text to someone with comments.

Functionality that would be great:

  1. Copy/paste functionality of any sort
  2. The ability to highlight a section of text and drop it straight into an email
  3. Knowing which of your friends (in your address book; Facebook friends; etc.) is reading the book and what page they’re on
  4. Highlighting and commenting on text that can be seen by your friends who are reading the same book (I’d want the comments to appear in the app, not to appear as a Facebook update)
  5. Export all of your highlights, as well as your comments, into a shareable file
  6. The ability to opt in/out of making your comments available to some sort of online discussion forum…
  7. ….and, similarly, to view comments from that forum while you read, if you want.

And some things I wouldn’t want:

  1. Lots of embedded video – I still want reading to be reading and not to involve any headphones
  2. Any instant messaging-type functionality within the app
  3. Anything with notifications that pop up without me asking for them
  4. Anything at all that makes turning off EVERYTHING (others’ comments, etc) in the least bit difficult
  5. Whatever else would turn my book-reading experience into something more akin to web browsing.  I want (and we all need) the ability to give something sustained attention without distraction

Basically what I’d want is a one way door that I can fully control, that I can choose to open to go deeper into conversation with those with whom I’d like to converse about a book.  I don’t want the book to be any less book-like, I want the option of creating a shared experience and peer dialogue by leveraging existing, simple functionality in a way that amplifies the experience without distracting.

Says who?

I snapped this picture at the local U.S. Post Office.  The question is: who exactly said that they are the “official shipper of the holidays?”

The answer, of course, is: they did

By deciding something and saying it out loud, you give yourself a shot at becoming that thing.  There’s no consecration process.  No one anoints your idea.  No one adjudicates on making your dream official.  There’s no judge and jury whose permission you need.

You just commit, and then you follow through like crazy.

That’s when it becomes real, not before.

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p.s. There’s also a way to do this on the back-end, by naming what you’ve done in a way that empowers your tribe.  For example, I’d noticed a month ago that I had cell coverage inside my local subway station, but it was only today, when I saw the sign from AT&T telling me that this was one of 6 stations with in-station coverage, that I was handed a story I can share.

p.p.s. this isn’t a post about the US Postal Service, which is struggling mightily, or even about the strange sign which seems more like a plea than anything.

What you create with a generous act

John Tierney wrote a smart piece in the Sunday New York Times about the salubrious effects of gratitude. He write, “Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.”

The far-reaching effects of gratitude make it sound like a wonder-pill that could be sold on QVC: “THIS simple book will describe the AMAZINGLY EASY STEPS that will help you sleep better, feel less anxious, will lower your blood pressure AND help your marriage!!”  I’m sure the first 1,000 of those would sell out in minutes.

On a more serious note, what I found intriguing was the omnidirectional impacts of gratitude: something as simple as keeping a gratitude journal (listing five things you’re grateful for, one sentence each) made people more optimistic and happier, and they “reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out” (wow);  students who had been given help fixing a broken computer were more likely to volunteer to help a complete stranger with a task; writing an essay about gratitude made students less likely to retaliate when they received criticism.

This harkens back to the circular – as opposed to reciprocal – culture of gift-giving.  As Lewis Hyde explains in The Gift, there is strong cultural norm in many traditional societies in favor of gifts flowing in a circle.  In the Kula ceremonial exchange of the Massim people of Papua New Guinea, for example, “male” red shell necklaces worn by women move clockwise around the islands of New Guinea, and “female” armshells worn by men move counterclockwise around the island (sometimes traveling hundreds of miles before complete the circle).  Since you never give to a person who has given to you, and vice-versa, the notion of group membership is reinforced and the undertow of reciprocal obligation is kept at bay (e.g. “I’ll buy a table at your benefit dinner if you buy one at mine.”)

With this perspective, we can deepen our understanding of what happens when one engages in an act of generosity.  In the narrowest sense, someone is helped.  Broadening a little, the giver, especially if she is conscious of and reflective about her actions, will, over time, be transformed through the repeated act of giving.  Most interesting – seen through the prism of the research on gratitude – engaging in a generous act creates a chain reaction of ongoing good action and good feeling: another generous act done by the person to whom you were generous; an increase in well-being; less likelihood of retaliation when that person is wronged…and on and on we go.

This is what’s really going on when we act generously.  The person to whom we are being generous, whoever she is, is not some sort of passive, faceless “recipient,” and the power of that generous act does not dead-end with the her.  It ripples out.  It spreads into her lives and into the lives of others.

And so what we know intuitively is supported by the research: if we can get a big enough number of people to make generosity integral to how they move through the world, the shift that begins with them will multiply.

Happy Thanksgiving.

One trait to rule them all

If you had one non-negotiable trait that you’d want everyone representing your organization to hold, share and transmit, what would it be?

Of course you’ve got bright, engaged people.  They are confident and interesting, energetic and well-versed in what you do and how it fits into the larger whole.  They are humble and they listen well.  They build relationships naturally, care genuinely about people, look to make others successful as much as they look out for the interest of the organization.

But that one thing, the oomph, the special something that sets them apart?

It’s joy.

Joy is infectious.  Joy is rare.  Joy is something we grab on to and won’t let go of.  It transcends.

(proof point: Zappos)

There’s just one catch: there’s no faking it.

Which means that the starting point is that what you do matters and inspires.  And HOW you do it matters just as much, because that is how your team experiences the work, their  colleagues, your values and how you and they walk through the world.  These all add up to something much greater than the sum of the parts.

But once you’ve got it?  Magic.

10 year milestones are mushrooming

Another exciting 10-year milestone came last week: Network for Good turned 10.  My friend Katya has many credits to her name (Network for Good’s COO, the author of Robin Hood Marketing, and she writes the fabulous, must-read Nonprofit Marketing Blog) but I know her as the person who, with a simple question and a smile, made Generosity Day happen in the first place by making me realize that action was so much more important than getting the plan just right.  A huge lesson.

In Katya’s words: “Network for Good turns ten on Saturday and to celebrate, we created what else – an infographic!” Joy in an infographic = a great thing.

Some things that struck me from the graphic: in 10 years, more than half a billion dollars has been given through Network for Good ($140 million last year alone), and online giving, especially for disaster relief, is clearly going mainstream.  It’s clear that this is a trend that will continue and it’s a call to attention for all nonprofits to really understand this trend.

What I think we all need to figure out in the next 10 year is how online can transition from being a funding channel to an interactive experience that increases connection to nonprofits and accountability and transparency from nonprofits.  Obviously that is beginning to happen and it will be exciting to see where the next decade takes us.

(there’s a postscript after the infographic)

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p.s. Since my wife is the only person in the world who will get the oblique reference in the blog title, here’s the story: years ago we had a small rental in a big Victorian house in Massachusetts, with a shared, shaded driveway that was iced over from December to May.  We had a friendly, ex-hippie neighbor with a beat-up old white car that swapped spots with us in that one-lane driveway.

The car was covered in bumper stickers, my favorite of which was: “Mycology is Mushrooming.”  I’m embarrassed to say that one still makes me laugh.

The best way to give thanks

Next week is Thanksgiving in the United States.  I’ve always enjoyed the holiday since it’s focused on family and on gratitude, without a lot of gift-giving hullabaloo or commercialization (the Macy’s Day Parade notwithstanding, though that’s pretty fun too).

Generosity Day 2012 is also less than three months away, on February 14, 2012, and I know many of you are ready to roll up your sleeves and jump on the front lines to spread the word about Generosity Day.

Here’s an idea: start now.

More specifically, what better way to give thanks than by giving?  What better way to show gratitude than by helping others?  What better way to get ready for Generosity Day 2012 than by doing a mini-generosity experiment of your own?

Try it next week, for the week or just for one day.  Consider it your Generosity Day Dry Run, so that you can speak with gusto and authenticity when the big day arrives.

Start on Monday so you can arrive at Thanksgiving Dinner with stories to share.

Imagine families coming together and swapping our personal generosity stories, which people can take away and bring home with them, planting the seed of this idea far and wide.

As a bonus to everyone else in this community, share your reflections, experiences and stories by:

–          Commenting on this blog post

–          Emailing generosityday [at] gmail.com

–          Tweeting / sending Facebook updates using the #generosityday hashtag

We’ll share – with permission, of course – some of these stories in the lead-up to Generosity Day 2012.

And if you want to sign up to get special Generosity Day update sign up for the Generosity Day Google Group here.


There are lots of different email strategies out there (and it’s quite a reflection on the world we live in that mastering email is a key element in becoming more professionally productive).  You might file or search; you might believe in an empty Inbox or not; you might leave your email on all day or disconnect your email program for part of the day.

(I happen to be: search not file; no empty inbox; on all day.  You?)

The big question is, what exactly do you DO when you open up your Inbox?

The FIFO philosophy (first-in, first-out) has you digging from the back…you start with your oldest email and work backwards.  I suspect this is an uncommon strategy for all but the most avid empty-inboxers.

LIFO (last-in, first-out), conversely, has you start with whatever came in most recently.  It’s tempting and rewarding and, I suspect, a terrible strategy most of the time – instant gratification disguising itself as productivity.

I’d propose a NIFO strategy instead: none-in, first out.  That is, you open your email because you have something specific to get done, someone you want to reach out to, a very important action that you want to initiate.

Since you have many very important things to do (customers to call on, projects that you are moving forward, etc.), starting with these, rather than starting with replying to whatever everyone else wants you to do, allows you to own your agenda rather than have your agenda own you; it ensures that when you run out of “email time” (as you inevitably will) that the things that are left off the list aren’t the five most important things you have to do; and if you’re disciplined about this you’ll never dive into email just to empty your inbox…you’ll start with actions you want to initiate and then (and only then) will get to “replying all.”

5 tough questions

Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference.  To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure.  Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).

1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?

Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.

2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?

We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created IDEO.org to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.

3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?

When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.

4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.

5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?

Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.

I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often.  You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.

This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.

Ten years of Acumen Fund

Last Thursday night, we celebrated 10 years of Acumen Fund.  It was a beautiful evening that reflected the spirit of what we’ve built over the last 10 years, all of which is thanks to the incredible community that surrounds us, the fearless entrepreneurs we support, and the tireless devotion of our team.

To kick the night off, we shared this video tribute to all that we have built together over the last 10 years. Indeed, from humble and audacious beginnings come great things.

Today – livestream of Acumen Fund Investor Gathering

Each year at Acumen Fund we bring together our top supporters from around the world for our Investor Gathering, a day to share our successes (and failures) with those who make our work possible.

This year, to mark our 10th anniversary, for the first time we are live-streaming one hour of today’s event.  You can watch the live video feed today at 1pm Eastern on our Community site http://community.acumenfund.org.

This is a chance to hear from our global team about the work they have been doing and what they are learning, including closing reflections about the future by our founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz.

We’re proud of what we’re building, and excited to share it with you.