Mailing it in

Today I received emails from class representatives from both my high school and graduate school asking me to give as part of an annual campaign.

Both asks were identical: our participation rates are low, please give so we can increase that number (one of them said that if we got to 40% our class could get a free dinner…we were at 13% and have a few days to go.  Good luck with that).

It’s such a dismal approach that I can’t dignify it by calling it fundraising.  It feels like a bill collector aiming for the lowest level of shame (“give us something”) in the hopes that if you pester people enough with a safe, familiar approach you’ll create enough miniscule annuity streams that it will somehow pay off in the end (it doesn’t – the math doesn’t work).

It would take so little to tell one – just one – very short story:

Dear Sasha,

I know how busy you are and how many emails you receive.  I also know how important [school] was to you, and I wanted to tell you one story that caught my attention last year, and I hope that reading this will encourage you to give as part of our annual campaign [LINK].

When we were students, only 15% of our class received scholarships.  Now that number has jumped to 65%.  Just last year, [name] who was on a full scholarship to [school] was accepted to a [great school], also on a full scholarship.  She is aiming to be an engineer and is already part of an incredible research lab working on bioinformatics.  [Name] was always a leader in the [school] community, and while we aren’t surprised at her success couldn’t be prouder – and it’s a success we can all share in.

We’re hoping you will join your classmates and give this year to support this kind of success.  We all share the sense that the education we received was the foundation of so much we’ve accomplished in our lives.  Let’s do what we can to share that success with others.  Even just $10 to show your participation would mean a lot.

[nice big button – click to give]

– Class representative

This letter I’ve written isn’t even that good, but it’s a start.  It shows respect to the recipient.  It takes a stab at creating an emotional connection and allows the alumnus to ascribe meaning to the action you’re asking him to take.  It reinforces the connection he already feels to the institution.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is no excuse for doing something without an ounce of heart, soul, or courage.  Give all of us the respect of showing us why you’re asking, and (if you dare) take the added step of helping us understand that we already are part of something that was hugely important in our lives.

You’re contacting people anyway.  Why not try to make it good?  Lord knows it couldn’t be any worse.

The thing about being generous

Is that most of the time the generosity comes right back at you, except when it doesn’t.

You can lean into that rejection too.

That tiny sense that someone just took advantage of you? It’s a reminder that this isn’t a zero sum game.  It’s also a chance to remember that there are times when you, too, were less generous than you could have been.

Whatever you do, don’t let these rebukes stray you from your path.

(and speaking of paths, here’s Nipun Mehta’s beautiful UPenn Commencement speech on generosity – the transcript of which has been read more than 100,000 times)

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.

ionPoverty with Anne-Marie Burgoyne

I thought I’d share Jonathan Lewis’ ionPoverty interview with my friend Anne-Marie Burgoyne.

Anne-Marie’s portfolio of totally incredible social enterprises is a sight to behold: she funds amazing early-stage social entrepreneurs, and over the course of her three year engagement with them she rolls up her sleeves like no one I know, as a Board member and adviser, to help them succeed.

I know the terms “venture philanthropy” and “strategic philanthropy” fell in and out of favor (for good reason), but Anne-Marie’s work reminds me that philanthropic funding can be off the charts in terms of rigor, seriousness, and results-orientation without sacrificing a deep understanding of everything that makes the social sector unique.

This one-minute teaser conversation will give you a taste of the conversation – you can sign up for an all-access pass to ionPoverty for $15 (depending on where you live that’s one or two sandwiches…it’s a good deal).


Insight as a spectator sport

I recently reread Daniel Goleman’s 1998 Harvard Business Review article on emotional intelligence .  Goleman’s research showed that as individuals get more senior in organizations, differentials in performance are a function not of intellect and technical skills but of emotional intelligence.

When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

Emotion intelligence, in Goleman’s definition, is comprised of:

Self-Awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others

Self-Regulation: the ability to control, or redirect, disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting

Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence

Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions

Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

So what do I do when you come across something like this – a potentially powerful insight that turns your current thinking on its head?  Do I totally revamp my hiring process?  Do I do nothing?  Or do I tinker around the edges?

As someone who’s constantly on the lookout for these sorts of insights, I know I don’t adopt every great new idea I come across.  Sometimes that’s because I don’t fully believe in an idea, but often it’s because I don’t have the guts (or the willingness to take the social risk) to try it (e.g. conduct all meetings standing up).

There are four possible orientations to great ideas.

  1. Never find them in the first place (don’t read the books, the blogs, watch the TED talks, etc.)
  2. Consume them and ignore them
  3. Consume them and incorporate them a bit around the edges
  4. Embrace them, test them out, and be willing to incorporate them if they work for you

While option 1 (living heads down, actively hiding from all the amazing ideas that are spreading) is the most obvious thing to avoid, it’s options 2 and 3 that are more subtle and just as troublesome.  You come across something great, but you don’t actually do anything to make it yours.

As in, “That sounds great, but we can’t really do it that way because….” or, worse, “Well sure that might work for her but that would never work for us because…”

The moment we have a bias towards action, we read/act differently.  We’re no longer couch potatoes, waiting to be entertained, we’re active learners leaning forward, taking notes in the margins, sharing the bits we like the best, starting discussion groups, having five other people read the same book so all of us can test out new ideas together.

We come across too many great ideas to allow insight to be a spectator sport.

*                      *                         *                              *                      *

p.s. Viewed through this lens, we understand a TED talk (or a TED book), a Domino book, a great manifesto or a focused, passionate blog differently.  They are optimized for idea transmission and action.  A 250 page book may be what it takes to wring every last drop out of an idea, but the 80 page version probably gives the reader enough to act on.

Fundraising problem

Here’s the conundrum: transactions happen today, relationships build over months, even years.   Real relationship-building doesn’t conform to rules of thumb or your annual targets.  Also, if you’re building from scratch, it could take years to get from here to there.

Meanwhile, you feel like you have a fundraising problem today.  Your real problem is that you’re the only person who has that problem.  Your potential funder does not have a fundraising problem.  Or a giving problem.  She has, we hope, a “getting something done in the world” problem.

The paradox is that doing this right is a long term build and you have to be clear about what success looks like.  The seemingly contradictory mistakes you must avoid are: 1. Walking around and just seeing your short term needs; and 2. Never being ready with a real, crisp, compelling ask at the right time and the right way.

When is that right time?  It’s kind of a Goldilocks question, but if you’re not sure what your answer is my bet is that it’s sooner than you think (better to ask too soon and fail a few times than to wait too long).  Through it all, you need to experience and communicate a sense of urgency about your mission, clarity about what you’re doing, and readiness to articulate what you are trying to accomplish and how a funder can be a part of it.

But people, like dogs, can smell fear and desperation a mile away.

The transitions

I had a yoga teacher who loved to rib the class about all the activity that would start after (or before) a really tough pose:

“It’s amazing how thirsty everyone gets, how it becomes time to fix your hair or tuck in a t-shirt or towel off…”

He liked to remind us that yoga was all about the transitions – that anyone could muscle through a pose and hang on for a few seconds or a minute.  Yoga is about what comes in between, what comes before and after, as a reflection of who you are in the pose.

Taking that out of the studio….

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’ve made the miniscule commitment to stop automatically looking at my iPhone every time I get in an elevator.  What bothered me about it was the “automatically” not the “looking.”  That is, the troubling piece is a reflexive notion that time in an elevator or on a train platform or (much worse) walking down the street is down time with nothing to do, so the only sensible thing is to check your email.

Let’s be real about this: there’s a mountain of work to do.  Furthermore, since you’re doing something worth doing that means you want to put your heart and soul into this work.  So you work hard, you give more, and you want to and should keep up.

But that’s not the same thing as: “every ‘free’ moment I have is best spent chipping away at an unconquerable mountain of email.”  That’s the professional equivalent of muscling through the pose – the notion that you’re going through the world forever struggling to keep up.   Plus, take that to its logical conclusion and at some point you’ve given up on every last moment of quiet, of reflection, of noticing the day and the sun shining and other human beings walking down the street or riding the subway with you.  There’s something real there too.

I struggle with this tremendously and I fall short often.  What I strive for is being intentional and being present.  That’s not never using my iPhone, nor is it mindlessly app-flipping every time I have 30 seconds to spare.


What sets you apart

Not smarts or capacity or competence.

Not pedigree.

Not even accomplishments if they didn’t require putting yourself on the line.

Relentless passion? Courage? Going out on a limb? Refusal to give up? Yeah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s virtually impossible to lead if you’re not fully invested. It’s impossible to lead if the (potential) failure wouldn’t be personal. It’s impossible to lead without having something at stake.

What sets you apart is showing that you’ve done something that looks like that.

P.S. This all translates directly into questions to ask – and questions to skip – in interviews.

I Have a Dream

Last month I had the chance to spend a weekend in Washington D.C.  By far the most emotional moment for me was my stop at the Lincoln Memorial, which, somehow, I’d never visited before.

At the top of the steps of the Memorial, there’s a small engraving that marks the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28th, 1963.  It was placed there in a ceremony in August 2003.

I was surprised at the emotion I felt standing on that spot.  It felt real, tangible.  The video reel that we’ve all seen a thousand times still gives me the chills, but at the same time it is somehow distant – a movie.  Being on that spot connected me to the flesh-and-blood person who stood in front of a nation and delivered a speech that changed the course of history.

What struck me was the humanity of that moment.  What struck me is that by making people into heroes we separate ourselves from them, we forget that whatever made them great is in us too.

The other day I reread the “I Have a Dream” speech and found it more eloquent, more inspiring, more rich and layered and powerful than even my fondest memories.  I thought you might want to reread it too.


Aug. 28, 1963

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee,sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride

From every mountainside, let freedom ring?

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:       

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!