If Only the Shades of Grey were Brighter

I knew I was pressing my luck.

I had flown in or out of LaGuardia Airport three times in four days, and I uttered the phrase, “I’ve had pretty good luck with flights this week.”

And so it follows that, for flight number four, two days later on a Sunday afternoon, I sat with my family of five on the tarmac for three hours only to ultimately return to the gate. A few hours after that, the flight was canceled.

I’d assumed that when American cancels your flight, or, in our case, five of your flights, they give a voucher for a meal or a hotel. Apparently not since “the flight was canceled due to air traffic control and not because of something the airline did or because of severe weather.”

(But the pilot told us 10 different times that air traffic control wouldn’t let us take off due to a “low ceiling in New York.” Isn’t that bad weather? But I digress.)

By my math, the overnight delay cost our family about $500: two $104 hotel rooms at the ALoft, one (terrible) dinner for five at that hotel, breakfast at the airport, an extra night of parking my car at LaGuardia, an extra night of care for our dogs, and a taxi from JFK to LaGuardia since our flight home landed at JFK.

What struck me about the experience was that this is how things work in today’s hyper-transactional economy: each step along the way is optimized by an app offering information (flight status, re-booking) and discounts (hotels, meals), and the sum of all of those micro-transactions is an experience that dehumanizes both the customer and the service provider:

The flight attendant is frustrated because she has no information or control, and the passengers are upset.

The gate agent is powerless. He just got assigned to the gate. He has no information and no discretion, and it feels terrible to give angry passengers nothing.

The airline has no obligations. It’s all spelled out in the fine print.

The one lone woman working at the hotel front desk has such a narrow job that she transfers the call three times to the van pickup and, when it goes to voicemail, she has no recourse.

The bartender has a big smile and pours a nice cold beer, but when we order a full meal off the bar menu he looks terrified. It turns out that the “grilled cheese with tomato soup” at the ALoft Raleigh-Durham is a microwaved hamburger bun with some semi-melted cheese and Cambell’s soup, all served lukewarm—because he has no chef, no pan, no stove, nothing. We’d ordered four of them.

While our 24 hours delay with a family of five was tiring and expensive, what I noticed most was how much it cried out for an ounce of humanity. The economy we’ve built optimizes so much for efficiency that there’s no space for human agency. Every step is a tiny transaction in which both people standing across from each other—service provider and service recipient—are powerless. It’s dehumanizing by a thousand cuts.

Well, not always.

On the bookends of this trip, I got to spend some time talking to Lily. Lily works at The Parking Spot at LaGuardia airport.

I first called Lily on Friday afternoon when The Parking Spot website told me that they were full, and I couldn’t park there. I called to see if this was true or if I could just show up, and Lily confirmed that I could only reserve over the website: “If it says we’re full, you can’t park here.”

So I asked her for advice, since LaGuardia is under construction and every place was full. We talked a bit more then Lily paused and asked what time I would arrive. “Three o’clock,” I told her.

“Come on over, ask for me, I’ll get you a spot.”

When I arrived, Lily and I both discovered that we knew each other a little. About a year ago, my wife and I were leaving from / arriving to LaGuardia on the same day. The best way for us to make it work was for my wife to pick up the car that I’d parked a few hours prior—without a car key, without the ticket, and with a different last name. Randomly, I had chosen The Parking Spot and ended up explaining this long-winded plan to Lily. She was great. I think she thought it was funny. She helped. My wife got the car. Lily acted like a human being.

The same thing happened with Lily this past Friday when I called, and on Monday the five of us rolled in, exhausted after a 24 hour delay. She laughed. She cracked jokes. She put everyone at ease, not because she has to but because she obviously finds joy in being helpful, saying hello, being human. And, to state the obvious, where do you think we’re parking the next time we fly out of LaGuardia?

The infinite, micro-losses we’ve created in today’s hyper-efficient world are epitomized in how remarkable Lily’s behavior is: in making every transaction smoother and a little bit cheaper we disempower everyone, and no one misses what’s been lost until it’s too late. Care, kindness and humanity now feel like luxury goods.

There is, however, a silver lining: it’s easier than ever, against this backdrop, to have the smallest actions stand out as exceptional. You can do this from the front lines. You can do this in how you build your company culture.

It’s easier than ever to be noticed, to have a bright splash of color be seen in an increasingly monochromatic economy.

Expectations

So much of how we experience each other bounces off everything that is left unsaid.

Expectations about how good the movie would be.

Expectations about what was meant when you were told “the meeting will start at 10:00.”

Expectations about how we will dress.

Expectations about what it means to do this job.

Expectations about what it means to work for you.

Expectations about who gets to have good ideas.

Expectations about who gets to say yes, and no.

Expectations about who gets to speak when.

Expectations about how, and how much, to agree and disagree.

Expectations about where we do our best work.

Expectations about whether showing up in person matters.

Expectations about how much care we put into saying “thank you.”

Expectations about what it means to listen, and the relative importance of listening and speaking.

Expectations about how a President is supposed to act.

Expectations about who can and cannot leave the office first.

Expectations about what silence means (in a meeting, when I don’t hear back from you).

Expectations about what you mean when you say “I’ll take it from here.”

 

It turns out that most of how we experience in the world comes from sense-making, and sense-making is a comparison between what happened and the sum total of everyone’s unspoken expectations.

Think for a moment about what this means if you’re working across…anything really: geography, culture, class, religion, age, gender, or even just two groups within the same organization.

More often than not, misunderstandings come from forgetting how different each of our expectations are, and from the mental shortcuts we all take as we fill in blanks (“what did that really mean?”) based all of our unconscious biases.

 

How are you?

Notice how grooved we get in our reply to this question.

Either we respond with an anodyne “Fine thanks. And you?”

Or we use it as a chance to vent about the last three things that went wrong in our day.

Here’s an idea: use this as a moment to consciously, genuinely share the most positive thing that’s happened recently, or one thing you’re looking forward to.

By sharing that emotion and that energy, the person who was kind enough to ask can feel that and pay it forward.

I’m sorry

You might have noticed that apologies don’t need to happen just once.

The first time, the words can catch in your throat. You might sound a bit defensive, even reluctant, a bit like the little kid who looks at the ground, mumbling almost unintelligibly as his parent nudges him forward to say “sorry.” What’s going on is either that you don’t fully believe your own words, or you sense that the person you’re speaking to isn’t totally ready to hear you.

The second time you apologize, you’ve gotten past the noise in your head (“I’m not the only one who did something wrong!”) and the self-congratulations (“I’m such a martyr”) and started to get in touch with real feelings. As these feelings of remorse start to be visible, you begin to build an emotional bridge between you and another person.

And the third time, well, the third time you are fully grounded in the truth of the wrong you’ve done, the hurt you’ve inflicted, the unnecessary slight, and you can match those feelings to the words you say and to how you say them. When that comes out, you can truly apologize and begin to set things right.

Of course there’s nothing special about apologies. This is the way it goes with any communication that has real, challenging emotional content, including expressions of humility, gratitude, requests for help, even communicating the joy and hopeful enthusiasm you have for a job you want, joy that is often buried beneath layers of seemingly-appropriate responses.

There are no shortcuts to expressing your emotional truth. There’s just the progressive work of discovering it, and then having the courage to reveal it.

Sorry.

Reminders in Troubling Times

Every Monday morning at Acumen, in all of our offices, we hold a staff meeting. It starts with context from the last week and ends with “Aha’s,” reflections from the previous week relevant to our work and to our mission.

These past few weeks have been a drumbeat of global news going from bad to worse, of fear taking center stage. At some point it gets hard to even find the right words.

Here are some of the reminders I heard from colleagues yesterday that I needed to hear.

That if you’re paying attention to the world right now, you are probably hurting.

That if you come across someone who is hurting, they could use a sign of love, of warmth, of kindness, maybe even a hug.

That we can express care and connection through actions big and small.

That how we act in each of our daily interactions has ripple effects for us and for those around us.

That the world desperately needs the people who are fighting against evil, against injustice, and against division to remain hopeful.

That these same people need support from people who, today, are sitting on the sidelines.

And that being part of an organization that is working to make positive change in the world puts us in a leveraged position to be a force for good, and that this in itself is a reason to redouble our efforts and redouble our hope.

Please, let us keep at it. Let us keep fighting the fight.

Please, let us keep listening to each other and holding each other in our hearts.

Please, let us show each other, and let us show those that are angry and frustrated and tired and hopeless, that what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

The Kick

I’ve started swimming again.

To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.

I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.

Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.

Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.

(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)

At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.

What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.

I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?

I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.

We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.

Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.

We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.

We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

Put the gloves down

What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?

It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:

The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.

The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.

The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.

Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?”  I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.

Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.

Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.

Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.

How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).

Imagined Distance

Every nonprofit fundraising campaign is about closing the imagined distance between a person and an issue.

The imagined distance between health today and a potential disease tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and someone who is suffering from that disease today.

The imagined distance between the safety you feel today and the potential of being a victim tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and the person who is a victim today.

The imagined distance between the rights you take as a given today and the loss of those rights tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and a person who does not have those same rights today.

The imagined distance between me and you, when “you” is someone I think I don’t know, someone I think is different from me, someone I have been choosing to look away from.

Once it’s revealed and felt that this distance is just a mirage, a construct that allows us to hide from our shared connection and shared humanity, then and only then is it time to explain why your organization, your intervention, your solution is going to make a difference.

But step 1 is to break down those walls – walls that create safety but that also create separation.

Because, ultimately, while safety creates comfort, it doesn’t hold a candle to what people really crave: connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose.