INSTEAD or AND philanthropy

This is the age-old cannibalization question, the sleeping giant we are terrified to wake. It’s the specific story, the individual program that connects with a donor in a deeper way BUT might pull them away from precious, scarce, unrestricted support.

Do we, in telling that story, lose the donor forever to the cause as a whole?

I don’t think so. Not most donors, not most of the time. But it is a risk.

It boils down to a question of share of philanthropic pocket and share of philanthropic mind.

Most of the time, for most of our funders, we are a small portion of their philanthropic mindshare and their philanthropic pocket. This is because most of our donors are under-engaged, because they are busy and because, for most of them, we show up when it’s time to ask for something and then we disappear. Shame on us.

The more specific story – or more specific program – is powerful because it’s usually more visceral and it feels more real. In telling that story in the right way, we have the opportunity to create a deeper connection. And, when we do it right, we will tell the specific story as an illustration of the whole, and ask for funding for the whole. This is the best way to fundraise, and it requires passion, discipline and practice to get it right.

But that won’t work for everyone. Some funders – either because that’s their mindset or because that’s where they are in their philanthropic journey with your organization – want the more specific. That’s OK too if the more specific will ignite their passion, will enable their deeper connection to their work, and will transform them from passive to active supporters. Even if the dollar amount of their support remains unchanged, a wildly passionate supporter is worth ten times (a hundred?) an unengaged but consistent supporter.

If you succeed (yes, succeed, because it’s a win) in generating this sort of shift, your job is to recognize it and invite that person fully over to your side of the table, to take their newfound passion and energy, along with your much-clearer understanding of how you can truly partner with them, and enlist them in the countless ways they can help: to improve your thinking, bring other resources to the table, help spread your story…whatever else they can do beyond writing a check that will really help the cause.

While all this is true, it’s also true that sometimes this is a tradeoff – an INSTEAD rather than an AND.

Some funders are engaged and care already and are giving significantly, and then they hear a particular new story and they will choose to trade between the broad (or unrestricted) and the narrow – at least for now. That’s OK too. In this case, the only thing to do is to have a clear conversation about what’s going on, and, if there’s space for it, to ask whether they would consider an AND rather than an INSTEAD donation for that new program. Even when you do this all perfectly, don’t forget that sometimes resources (time and money) are finite, which means that sometimes one thing gets traded for another.

I believe that this last case is the rarest, and that even when it happens it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because this is a long-term game, and ultimately our job is to build an army of supporters who care deeply and are with us for the long haul, not an army of check writers who care a little.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of nuance here, and a huge amount of space between “support the whole cause” (which is wonderful, powerful, and is the way we hope all philanthropy will happen, but is hard to sustain) and “we have 18 programs you can support and if you support just that we’ll run out of operating money in 6 months.”

It’s up to us to manage this gray area with grace, clarity, and love.

(Oh, and in case you haven’t yet been a passionate, engaged, connected reader of this blog, you can still spread the word to your NYC friends about the Catalyst for Change event this Thursday at 7pm where I’ll be speaking.)

It’s all personal

You can read every webpage about every foundation’s strategy.

You can scour CSR reports to see about a company’s social priorities.

You can analyze an individual’s past giving and the boards they serve on to understand their philanthropic priorities.

That all will help, but don’t be fool yourself.

Philanthropy is and always will be personal, deeply personal. There’s no such thing as the best place to give a donation, and there is no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer.

This is why all the best philanthropists 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, 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 score, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO, not by a long shot).

A Means, not an End

There’s construction going on in the hotel by my office, and union members are outside protesting the use of non-union labor. There’s was giant inflatable rat on 9th avenue and now two guys have been passing out fliers with a headline that talks about “desecration of the American way of life.” Powerful stuff.

Sadly, the guys passing out the fliers didn’t show the same passion as the words in the flier. Far from it.

In fact, here’s one of the guys who was handing out the fliers. (And no, he didn’t just glance at his phone for a second.)

A means not an end

Sure, he’s just a bored guy on the street early one morning, but it felt like a metaphor to me.

I worry sometimes that the online tools at our fingertips are so powerful and so engaging that, even when we use them in support of our cause, they can become an end in and of themselves. That the quest for members, followers, likes and retweets massages away the blood, sweat and tears that brought us here.

The moment we trade in our conviction, our outrage, and our commitment is the moment we’re just standing on the corner looking at our phone…just like everyone else.


Strong ideas, loosely held

One of the best pieces of advice I got about five years ago was that I should have “strong ideas, loosely held.”

The feedback I was getting was on the “loosely held” part. At the time people experienced me as having “strong ideas, strongly held.” I think I’ve made some good progress on that.

Five years hence, as I come back to the central paradox inherent in this notion, I’m understanding that the suggestion isn’t to have any less conviction around my ideas. Indeed nearly all of the time we need more conviction, more passion, greater commitment, and greater follow-through.

The real point here is that the passion we have for our own ideas must be coupled with a core, deep-seeded belief that most ideas, most of the time, get better when they interact with, and are changed by, other ideas.

Extremist for Love

Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate the life and leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  One of the many great pieces he wrote was the Letter from a Birmingham JailKing wrote this piece in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper while imprisoned for nonviolent protests on April 10th, 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The letter is a response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen condemning the Montgomery protests, describing those leading the protests as outsiders and rabble-rousers, and positioning themselves as reasonable men wanting “honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area.”  Most of all, these clergy argued that they “do not believe…that extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

King’s letter is a clear, measured, but also deeply powerful response to these clergy.   His language, his eloquence, his clarity of thought and his refusal to compromise on issues of morality, rights and dignity inform the conversations we are having today about inequality and social justice.  King writes:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations.  He has to get them out.  So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides.  If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.  This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.  I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually grained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist – “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question Is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

We discuss this passage at length with the Acumen Fellows, pushing one another on what it means to be an “extremist for love” and asking one another if, where and when we are willing to be extremists for causes we believe in.

Are you an “extremist for love?”  Do you aspire to be one?

The glimpse

The thing that gets people over the line isn’t how persuasive your argument is.  It’s certainly not because they see a big need in the world.

The thing that gets them over the line is passion.  Ultimately their passion, but before that happens they need to see your passion.  They need to glimpse something raw and unbridled and real.  A deep belief in what is possible.  Conviction.

In order for them to see that, they need to see you first, to understand who you are.  They need to be able to relate to your passion and have it mean something to them.  They need to appreciate that if you’re all fired up about something then it must be something worth getting fired up about.

The biggest mistake fundraisers typically make is to take themselves out of the story.  It’s a natural to try to step aside since what seems to be on offer is the story, or, worse, the need, and not the person telling the story.

Need is overwhelming and paralyzing to most people.  Need seems insurmountable.  We all are looking for real, grounded, plausible passion, possibility, potential and hope.  People begin to see that by seeing what you see, feeling what you feel.

If they don’t glimpse that in you, how are they ever going to feel it themselves?

It’s not personal, it’s business


Feels to me like that’s a big part of the problem.

The long, hard, stupid way

Later this month I’m speaking at the DO Lectures, and as part of my preparation I wanted to see a few of the lectures to get a flavor for the event and the talks. From the DO site I randomly picked the first popular talk, Frank Chimero’s “Do things the long, hard, stupid way.”

Of course, the talk is all about giving gifts. Kismet.

Frank describes himself as a “graphic designer, teacher and writer,” who, of course, does a talk with no slides (because that’s the “long, hard, and stupid way” for a graphic designer to give a talk).

The “long, hard, stupid” quotation comes from David Chang, celebrated restaurateur and proprietor of one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Momofuku on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. According to Frank, David once bit the head off of a line cook at one of his restaurants for taking a shortcut in making a dish, excoriating him because, “Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.”

(I actually made David Chang’s Momofuku ramen from scratch once, in December 2010 right before I stopped eating meat. It took about 40 hours from start to finish and it definitely IS a long, hard, stupid recipe. It is also unbearably, fabulously delicious. Here’s the photo).

“Long, hard and stupid” is about doing things that don’t make sense in the traditional sense. “Long, hard and stupid” is about care and craftsmanship and love.

Frank’s talk is mostly about gift-giving, going deep into what makes a gift a gift. A gift isn’t the brightest, shiniest thing, it something which has value put into it by the giver. The giver of a gift lets go of something she can never fully get back. There’s a reason why parents keep birthday cards from their kids for decades.

Something about Frank’s talk connected a lot of dots for me. My father is a concert pianist and, romantic notions of what that’s like notwithstanding, growing up hearing my father practice meant experiencing, vicariously, the “long, hard, stupid way” every day. The way he practices is far beyond reasonable, far beyond what might make sense or be efficient by any objective standard. It is about perfection. It is based on drive and love and the pursuit of something that only he sees.

So, when I was in 6th grade, he was stuck on a particularly tricky passage of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and he’d call me to his piano every two weeks to say “I’ve got it!” and he’d play the passage for me. It would sound perfect. A few days later he’d be back to the drawing board with a new fingering, and a few weeks later that would also sound perfect. And on and on he’d go, for months. In the midst of this madness, I was walking to school one day and a big truck honked – I actually heard the start of those same 32 measures that I’d heard, at that point, hundreds of times. That might sound amazingly erudite, but really it’s just plain crazy. And a little bit inspiring.

Bringing things back to today, Frank’s talk unlocked a mystery that’s been lurking in the background ever since I came to Acumen Fund more than five years ago. In the early days of my career, the one thing that terrified me was the notion of ever having to sell ANYTHING. Sales people were extroverts who loved cocktail parties where they knew nobody; they went to the bar at the end of 16 hour workdays so they could meet a few more new people. I knew that I could never sell because at the end of that same 16 hour day, all I wanted to do was get back to my hotel room and steal a few precious moments with a good book.

And then I got to Acumen Fund and found myself….selling. Sitting across from people telling our story. Helping conceive and execute a $100 million capital raise. Pounding the table telling people that they have radically misunderstood fundraising and that it’s something they HAVE to do if they’re going to succeed in the nonprofit sector.

How did I make the leap?

The “long, hard, stupid way,” of course. Meaning I cared enough and believed enough in what Acumen is doing, which meant that I could put love and passion into the work. When I sit across from someone who might give to Acumen, I’m not shilling some interchangeable widget, I’m sharing a vision, one of hope and possibility and making a dent in the universe if we all pull together and slog through the hard, messy, often unrewarding work of making real change.

When I share that passion and hope, I’m giving a gift.

And yet the world tells us every day that the “long, hard, stupid way” doesn’t make any sense. It’s impractical. You can and you must cut corners here and there.


If you’ve read the Steve Jobs biography you know how famously passionate Jobs was about every last detail of everything. Apple, the most valuable, most revered company of our time, designs products “the long, hard, stupid” way, and the day they stop doing that is the day they’ll no longer be Apple. And it’s not just them – now that everything is easily available and wildly affordable, we spend our energy seeking out things that haven’t been found, things that exude caring and attention to detail and craftsmanship. Why? Because it’s impossible not to notice when someone cared more than they should have about what they were making. We can feel that essence, and it moves us. We seek out objects, and people, who give gifts in everything they do.

Our opportunity, today, is to recognize that now more than ever, how we do everything is what defines us, what humanizes us, and what differentiates us. To recognize that cutting corners is a race to the bottom. To see that we’re not going to make massive change by cutting one more corner or by squeezing out that last half a percent of efficiency.

We have the opportunity, today, to give our gift to the world.

Giving this gift is what changes everything.

Who are you looking for?

The James Caird is the 23 foot-(8m-)long whaler in which Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions made the epic open boat voyage of 800m (l,300 km) from Elephant Island, 500 miles (800 km) south of Cape Horn, to South Georgia during the Antarctic winter of l9l6. Source:

What do your job postings look like?  Do they look anything like this one placed in a British newspaper by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, looking to hire crew for his Nimrod expedition to reach the South Pole (he never succeeded):


Pretty clear what you’re signing up for, huh?

Everything we do is a function of who is on the bus, the hands we have pulling together towards our common goal.  We may not be attempting to reach the South Pole, but we’re going somewhere important, and we need the right people to get us there.  People who share our values.  People who share our commitment.  People who are there because they are meant to be one of us – we just haven’t found them yet, nor they us.

Yet we punt on the opportunity to state who we are from the get-go.  We write bland, generic job postings, copying and pasting from the one we used last time and the time before that and the time before that.  We say things like “we are looking for self-starters who work well in teams, with strong attention to detail and a collaborative mindset.”

Huh?  It’s the hiring equivalent of mission statement blah-blah-blah: “we deliver excellence to our customers through uncompromising pursuit of top quality and belief in our stated values of trust, performance, and team.”

Please, please, please, stand for something in everything you do – especially in how you hire.  Instead of being afraid of writing something that some people won’t like, make SURE you write something that some people won’t like – because that way you’ll communicate something about who you are and what you stand for to the people who love that edgy, provocative thing you’re communicating.

Say things that only you would say, as a first step towards attracting only the right people to work alongside you for the next five or ten years.  What could be more important?

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

p.s. for those who noticed/didn’t like the two grammatical mistakes in the title of this blog post, I was being ironical.

David Pogue’s iPhone 4S review isn’t that great

There’s nothing wrong with the review, nothing at all.  It’s absolutely fine.  Anyone at all (especially non-techies and even non-iPhone users) who reads it will learn what’s different about the new iPhone and why she should be excited by it (spoiler alert: iMessage and speech recognition, called Siri).

But there’s nothing in there to make it the most emailed article on the NY Times site, viewed millions of times.

The thing is, the review itself doesn’t matter much.  People care what David Pogue is going to say about the new iPhone because David Pogue is David Pogue.  What’s more interesting is how he got to be David Pogue (for mass consumers, the authoritative voice, along with Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, on tech gadgets that are relevant to our lives): by writing for years and years about things that generally weren’t as interesting or as sexy as the iPhone: the Kindle before anyone cared, wireless speakers, the IBM Thinkpad and the Microsoft Zune.  He earned the right to be the person whose article you had to read on the coolest tech device in history (maybe not this iPhone but the iPhone) by spending years writing about devices that, by and large, weren’t that cool and that most of us will never buy.

You probably don’t want to be David Pogue, but you might want to be David Pogue about something.  You’d love to share your ideas and have people listen.  So how do you make that happen?

It might be counter- intuitive, but you get there by starting at the edges, meaning (if it were tech) not by writing about iPhones (only) but by writing about all sorts of obscure stuff too, like which is the best pre-paid cellphone plan or, better yet, which are the best pre-paid plans for college kids in rural Mississippi.

(Taking this a step further: if you care about yoga, you begin by staking your claim to extra- extra-hot yoga; if you care about veganism, you dive into organic, pesticide free local veganism.  Etc.)

My guess is that there are two things holding you back: you’re not sure you know exactly what your “thing” is today; and you feel like you have about 10 days’ worth of exciting, interesting things to say about that thing, not 10 years’ worth (which is what you’ll need to become the David Pogue of your thing.)

Fortunately, you’re wrong.  You have a lot to say.  The problem you need to crack isn’t figuring out everything you’re going to say.  The problem you need to crack is starting to say things.

Take this blog: when I started it, I knew that I had something to say about fundraising in the nonprofit sector.  That’s why I wrote my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs.  But I quickly discovered that I didn’t have a post to write every single day that was directly about fundraising.  That realization alone – it came early and it came often, I promise – tempted me to stop writing or, more pernicious still, tempted me to censor posts that felt off-topic.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  It’s only through the act of keeping on that I discovered what a blog post is, that I discovered how all the pieces could fit together, that I discovered my voice.  The topics will change, the blog will evolve, but through the act of doing I learned what it was I was doing, not the other way around.

If you’re expecting that you’re supposed to have all the answers before you start, you’ll definitely talk yourself out of jumping in, which would be a shame.  Get the scariest part out of the way by starting, and be prepared for the hardest part, which is shouting down the voice that will scream “this isn’t good enough!”  How could it be?  You’re just getting started.

There are only two non-negotiable prerequisites: dogged persistence (to keep at it) and passion for your topic.  Chipping away at the proverbial stone (to reveal the sculpture that lies within) is a daily undertaking, and only by sticking it out over a long period of time will you build up your expertise, your voice, and, eventually, your audience.