What do you know?

“Who are you to be spouting all of these ideas?”

“What do you really know about this?”

“You’re not an expert.”

“There’s nothing new here.”

“Who cares what you think, really?”

And on and on.

No, that’s not what your critics are saying.  It’s what the little voice inside your head is saying, the one that’s holding you back.  The one that is petrified that you might discover how much you actually have to offer.

Not transactional

Of course no one says that they have a transactional approach to fundraising. How could you admit to such a thing?

But to get beyond transactions means that donors are not numbers to you. It means that after people give you feel more enthusiastic, not less, to talk with them, to plan with them, to dig in with them. It means full emotional investment in the relationship, not looking over your shoulder at the clock. It means taking the notion of “partnership” seriously.

No one will ever say that they believe relationships should be transactional, but it takes guts to fully invest. You can’t fake it.

Your chance to shape a sector

Kevin Starr, who among other things runs the Mulago Foundation, penned a provocative, must-read series of posts on Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Problem with Impact investing (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3).

He leads off his last post in the series with the sub-header “Real impact investing is not for the timid” and focuses most of his screed on the fact that our sector is horrendous at articulating and measuring impact.

This is hard stuff, these are long and rocky roads, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

At a minimum impact investors diverge radically in articulating what we mean by impact.  At our most timid, we claim that nearly any enterprise operating in the developing world by definition is creating impact (really?).  At the other end of the spectrum, even the most impact-focused investors are likely to screen heavily for impact but then have limited capacity (financial resources, time and attention) post-investment to really understand or accelerate impact.  At the recent ANDE metrics conference there was deep appreciation for the strong foundation we’ve created in our sector – the Pulse platform, IRIS standards and GIIRS ratings – as well as a generalized acknowledgment that these tools alone are not enough to bring the clarity and insights we need to create large-scale, lasting change.

As Kevin states, both clearly and provocatively:

While the philanthropy world is still pretty bad about measuring impact, the impacting investing world is worse. Real impact measurement is a drag on the financial bottom line and investors are usually willing to assume it’s there, so few feel compelled to do it. What’s weird to me is that while all impact investors know that you could never maximize profit without measuring it, they often fail to recognize that the same is true of impact.

If impact investing itself isn’t for the faint of heart, forging the way forward on the next chapter of understanding and accelerating impact in our space is for the bravest of the brave.  Yet we know that better answers are out there; we know that there is increased appetite to dig deeper and to find real lessons about what is and isn’t working and why; we know that both funders and entrepreneurs are looking for better measures so they can deliver real change.

I’m hiring someone who wants to lead this charge.  Full details here for new Acumen’s Head of Impact role.

The application process is unorthodox because we need someone unorthodox.  As you’ll see in the job description, the ideal candidate has lived and breathed the reality of building an operating company / social business in the developing world; she has the analytical background and curiosity to translate these experiences into broader conclusions; she is a natural at building relationships within and outside of Acumen; and she’s excited by a lot of travel because she knows to do this right she’ll need to get her hands dirty.

I truly believe this is one of the most exciting opportunities out there for the right person.  Can’t wait to see who applies.

Deadline is August 5th.

(Happy to answer questions in the comments if you have them)

One great moment in a 24 hour delay

I’d love to chalk it up to bad luck – I continually have things go wildly wrong most of the times that I fly Delta.

Here’s what happened this time: for an 8:30pm flight to Accra, Ghana, we dutifully boarded the plane around 7:30pm, taxied out on time and began waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Rains came, and then lightning.

Around 11pm the pilot told us that the storm was moving quickly, that “most of the other planes have returned to their gates but we are keeping our spot.”

Sometime closer to midnight he said that “there are 66 other planes looking to take off” but he still felt we could get out.

A bit after midnight I finally dozed off, and was in and out of consciousness until 2:30am when the pilot threw in the towel, took us back to the gate, and told us to wait by the gate for an early morning departure.  It was to be at 6am, then 7am, then 8:30am.  After waiting in a plane on the tarmac for six hours, and then sleeping in the terminal for another six hours, Delta cancelled the flight and rebooked us all on a new flight at 8:30pm that evening, 24 hours after our original flight.

Who knows what really happened, whether we actually had a chance to get out and the pilot made the right call.  Who knows if it’s true that the Accra airport has a curfew – though all of my Ghanaian colleagues adamantly say that’s not the case.

What was striking through it all was that it was no one’s job to handle the whole situation.  The pilot’s job was to get us to take off, which didn’t work out.  After that we were handed to a series of gate agents and other representatives, none with any sense of ownership or real responsibility.  It was one massive game of pass the buck: at no point did someone stand up and say “I’m the person who is taking care of this situation, here is what’s going on, we’ll have more answers for you by 6:00am.”  Divide and conquer can work when things are going smoothly, but it falls apart completely when things go off the rails.  This is probably why at one point the NY Police Department had to be brought to the gate to quell a brewing uprising amongst the passengers – complete with threats of barricading security (“if we can’t fly out, then no one can!”).

The one bright spot?  Upon lining up (again) the following evening to board the flight, the amazing level of openness and camaraderie amongst all the passengers.  We were all in this together.  Conversations amongst strangers started effortlessly.  We were all smiling and laughing about our shared predicament and the absurdity of it all.  One Liberian woman, beaming at counter when I checked in, struck up a conversation with me about how she’d decided to just be happy and upbeat and stop worrying and complaining – she knew it would all work out OK and that was the energy she wanted to put out from that moment forward.  I smiled, laughed, and agreed with her, and the next moment I found myself getting a joyful hug from this woman I’d never met.

So there you have it: the moments of genuine human connection brought joy and laughter in the midst of this mess.

And it makes me wonder if it’s when the world around us breaks just a little that we pull together and come together, and if in our hyper-efficient, hyper-virtually-connected world where everything works smoothly, the chances of the impromptu smile, laugh, or hug simply disappear.

Note to left-brainers

It’s not helpful, ever, when asked for your input to list three or 10 or 20 things that need to be fixed without mentioning a single thing that is great.

I say this with humility as this isn’t a strength of mine – and I’m working on it (forever, I expect).  I watch in awe (and take notes) the people to whom this comes naturally.  And I empathize with the sentiment: you just want it (whatever “it” is) to be great, so let’s talk about why it’s not great yet and fix it.

The thing is, to make something great more often than not you need to amplify the things that are already really, really good.

Error correction alone does not get you to greatness.

Systems and caring

Do you have a system in place that helps you let your customers (donors) let you know that you care?

What I see more often is that people either:

  1. Care about customers (donors) but don’t have a system
  2. Have a system but don’t really care (or don’t succeed in sending messages that communicate care)

That is, you want your customers to experience how much you care, and need to do this in a way that prioritizes the most important customers and doesn’t suck the life out of your communication or your relationship.

Usually what happens is either that people care tremendously but feel that a systematic approach will somehow undermine the purity of that relationship, or they figure that efficiency is really important so do things like send the exact same message to 20 people, which all 20 people see through immediately.

The tough part thing is that really caring doesn’t actually scale all that well, so your list has to remain shorter than you might like so that the roots can grow deeper.

Autreat signal badges

I was thinking some more about how often we miss the opportunity to help the people we bring together connect with each other.  Then I heard about Autreat, a a conference run by and for people with autism.  As one of the many things they do to make the conference helpful and productive for participants, the organizers give them the option to wear red/yellow/green “Interaction Signal Badges.”

Red = I do not want anyone to approach or interact with me.  You can reply to questions I ask you but that’s it.

Yellow = I will interact with people I already know but not with unfamiliar people (“we’ve met online” = unfamiliar)

Green = I’m interested in interacting but I find it difficult to initiate interaction, so I’d be happy if others initiate interaction with me

The badge is just one of a zillion oft-overlooked elements we control when we bring people together, one of the things we could pay attention to if we really want to help people feel comfortable and create the kinds of connections they’d like to create.  The TED conference has massive badges with names printed in 32-point (I think) font, giant pictures, and “talk to me about” conversation starters.  Other great conferences go in the opposite direction, inviting a tiny number of attendees, having no one wear a nametag, and getting the social juices flowing with singing and poetry and time at the pub late into the night.

The problem with most conferences is that they do none of these things.  The organizers act as if putting on a conference involves packing the agenda with high-profile (often concurrent!) speakers and having people sit through those talks, with opportunity to randomly “network” in huge, personality-free reception halls.  The organizers spend 98% of time on the “program” and 2% of time on the steps (big and small) that would make it twice (or 10 times) as likely that people would interact.

Susan Cain recently reminded the world that there’s nothing particularly normal or special about being extroverted and about feeling totally comfortable in a massive crowd of folks and striking up new conversations.  So here’s a hint to people who bring people together: almost everyone would rather have more substantive, productive and fun conversations with almost everyone else, and almost everyone finds it difficult to start brand new conversations.  Help them!


What’s your current count of (subsequently) horrendous ideas that you actually tried make happen?

If it’s zero, what are the chances that you’re thinking big enough?

Finding the line

A friend of mine, a great salesman, was giving advice to a colleague of mine who was new to fundraising.

His suggestion: if you don’t get thrown out of at least one meeting in your first year you’re not being bold enough in your asks.

This wasn’t conceptual advice – it meant actually physically being shown the door.

Now I admit in nearly six years of fundraising I haven’t actually been thrown out, but I’ve definitely made some pretty outrageous asks.  At the same time, until I actually find the line I don’t fully know where it is.

You could be fundraising, you could be a freelancer, you could be selling just about anything – 9 times out of 10 we all are less bold than we could be and should be.

Yes be respectful, always, but find the line.