Storytelling is big. Our world seems alive right now with some of our best experts extolling the power of storytelling. Business schools have switched from ‘pitches’ to stories, Dan and Chip Heath’s compelling Made to Stick is required reading for NGO leaders, and politicians keep mining the power of Reagan-stories for inspiration. But let’s be clear, stories are complicated.
The reason most of us aren’t regularly regaling people with perfectly timed and eloquently described stories of our lives is because life rarely unfolds that way. It is only upon reflection that we recognize that x led to y, or that ‘this’ was the beginning and ‘that’ was the end. Yet leadership these days seems to demand that we pluck from the whorl of our past a sequence of logical facts that magically blend together into poignant lessons and an inspiring can-do tale.
But as researcher Elizabeth Loftus describes in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget,
Memory is imperfect…The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.
One particularly powerful influence in truth-bending is the desirability of outcome. People are prone to report what they believe the researchers wants to hear or report data that puts them (the subject) in a more positive light. What is critical to note is that over time, people actually believe the ‘adjusted’ facts to be true.
Greg Mortenson‘s unravelling is a cautionary tale for all leaders, especially those of us in the social sector where the self-revelatory, enlightening, ever-progressing origin story has almost become a requirement of the job. Where the desirability of outcome may tend towards exaggerated heroism.
Seems to me, this individualistic storytelling ‘heroism’ is partly the undercurrent of what distinguishes social entrepreneurs from mere executive directors? True stories are powerful and inspiring. But so are great managers.
The most discouraging thing about Mortenson was that he was too focused on being a celebrated founder and not at all focused on being a good manager. He didn’t understand that the inspiration story needs to be followed by the education story: testing one’s theories against data, research and outside expertise. He didn’t understand that the education story has to be followed by the institution story: building an organization capable of acting on the dreams he inspired. And mostly he did not understand that the job of an NGO leader is to surround yourself with staff, board, donors who can build upon AND save you from your own mythology.
On Christmas Day I was delighted to receive a unique gift from my husband: a watch made of an iPod Nano. (see gorgeous photo) I love this watch. It makes me look infinitely cooler than I am, it rocks my favorite songs without worrying that my dancing is going to jerk the earplugs out of my computer, and I don’t know anyone else who has one. It was the gift trifecta. All this for about 30 bucks. (OK I forced him to tell me this)
On December 16, 2010 TikTok+LunaTik raised just shy of $1million making it the single highest fundraising success story of the incredibly compelling crowdfunding website Kickstarter. As you know, Kickstarter’s tagline “Find and Fund Creativity” pretty much sums up their approach: people can post projects/ideas/plays/films/books almost anything, and ask for financial support to get the project done. Investors pay only when sufficient funds have been raised for project completion.
And what was TikTok’s record-setting project? To manufacture a wristband that turns an iPod Nano into a wristwatch. Their original fundraising goal: $15,000. So, some might say, TikTok raised close to $1 million to produce a product that already existed on the market.
You should know that I LOVE Kickstarter. I have funded a few of their projects – ones with knock-your-socks-off originality and potential for human connection and impact. And have no regrets.
But the story of TikTok’s incredible fundraising success raised questions for me about crowdfunding. Some of these questions may have some implications for philanthropic crowdfunding which is also experiencing a meteoric rise.
- Enthusiasm should not be confused with due diligence. Crowdfunding depends upon friends telling friends. So if a friend sends you a link and says, “I’m really excited about this and you should be too!” it can create a groundswell of activity. A groundswell isn’t inherently good or bad, so how do we tell whether the underlying principle is one or the other?
- The one-at-a-time nature of a project’s presentation and consideration (often via email or Twitter) means that the ability to compare the strengths and weaknesses of one project idea against similar projects is almost non-existent. It can heighten our belief in the radical uniqueness of the project before us, which may or may not be true. Traditional philanthropy which gathers all the proposals and reviews them side-by-side skews SLOW whereas crowdfunding skews FAST. How do we take the best of both?
But it is also true that:
- TikTok offered people a chance to feel like insiders in the creative process of a well-designed product, something more and more people value. It also gave the company a clear indication of product demand. Is there a way to harness the predictive capacities of crowdsourcing to enhance philanthropy and social innovation? Perhaps new giving sites such as Crowdrise, Groupon (with its Kiva partnership) or Philanthroper will show us the way.
- Updates and information are critical. The fact that TikTok included photos and video from its manufacturing plant in China was probably compelling for people who are interested in being included in the whole chain of production from design to delivery.
- Crowdfunding is fun! It’s what I like to call excited philanthropy. Ultimately, Kickstarter helps people feel a part of a community of like-minds. That feeling of community is the jet fuel in the “crowd”-engine. And maybe the crowd doesn’t have to do it perfectly every time, just better than the other alternatives.
My hat is off to Kickstarter and these other pioneering sites for being platforms for a new type of funding. They are pushing the boundaries of collective thinking and giving. And hats off to TikTok for passing a huge crowdfunding milestone. But I can’t help wonder if any of the 13,512 TikTok investors might feel a little ticked-off when they see me walking down the street in what looks like their million dollar watch.
What excites you/gives you pause in the rise of crowdfunded philanthropy?
Full Disclosure: My husband works for Apple which makes the iPod Nano. Apple does not make an iPod Nano wristwatch holder.
Once upon a time, there was a farmer with a goose that laid golden eggs. When he first got the goose, he was delighted. What could be better? Without doing anything, each morning he woke to discover a new golden egg. He was rich! Soon he was richer than his neighbors and got infinite pleasure in buying new, expensive toys for himself and his family. After awhile, the farmer was spending so much money on frivolous things that he stopped farming. He bought cheap corn for the goose —which resulted in smaller golden eggs. He stopped feeding the other geese and as her friends and family began to die, the farmer’s special goose became unhappy and stopped laying eggs altogether. Soon the thin, sad goose laid down and refused to get up. The next day she died.
As the farmer sat despondently at his kitchen table, he glanced across the road at his neighbor’s farm. How had he not noticed that his neighbor had become successful? The farmer wandered over in the hope of discovering his neighbor’s secret. When he walked into the gate he saw miles of fields planted with healthy crops, trees lush with fruit, and then he saw the most surprising thing of all: a large, clean coop full of happily clucking geese laying lots of golden eggs. The farmer was astonished. He found his neighbor and asked him where he’d bought all those geese because he wanted to go buy more. His neighbor looked at him and laughed. “I didn’t buy all these geese, I grew them. I started out with one. With careful cultivation, I found out what foods helped her grow, which foods helped her lay golden eggs. Soon she was raising a family and heading up a community of geese all laying golden eggs.” He looked at his friend’s ramshackle farm across the way and said, “Surely you haven’t forgotten. We are farmers not merchants. Our job isn’t to buy things to sell, it is to prepare the soil for things to grow.”
This adaptation of the well-known parable came to me as I was thinking about the ongoing debate of whether capitalism can or should be a driving engine for social change. I wholeheartedly believe it can. Capitalism can develop “mission along with margin” but the success of the venture in creating lasting social change is, I believe, dependent upon understanding who you are: a farmer or a merchant.
In this oversimplified parable, farmers are concerned with creating the conditions for growth, because an organic increase in soil fertility creates a farm that is a better ecosystem of productivity. Merchants are primarily concerned with creating products that, when sold, give some immediate benefit. Both are good. Both are necessary. But they are necessary in different situations. In microfinance, for example, farmers may be needed, but in the development of solar panels, we may need merchants. As a grantmaker, one will likely set different financial and programmatic objectives based on whether a grant is funding a merchant or a farmer.
Here in Asia, the contrast between creating conditions for long-term growth or products for immediate benefit is being played out in daily news reports on the rapid rise, and equally rapid decline, of SKS Finance, the microcredit company with backers such as by billionaire Vinod Khosla and George Soros. SKS raised $358M in its closely-watched IPO. But the rockstar rise of SKS has been matched by the rapid tumble its stock has taken. Reports of a rash of suicides allegedly caused by high interest rates, clients who were overextended on credit, and tough repayment requirements are said to have affected the crash.
In a matter of one month, a company that had been the exemplar of microfinance-going-to-scale stands on the brink of major changes that may dramatically reshape the players and the way microcredit operates.
SKS has been contrasted with other players in microfinance such as Grameen or ACCION. To be clear, these two organizations charge high interest rates. And they also engage in the practice of collecting repayment on a weekly basis. But some evidence suggests that the differences between them and SKS are as important as the similarities. Microcredit organizations that fall into the “farmer” category focus on social support as a key element of success and repayment. They develop long-term relationships with clients. They recognize that microcredit may be an ideal central organizing tool, but it is only one tool that poor women need to get closer to self-sufficiency. These microfinance organizations use their profits to create farm insurance products that help the poor avoid losing everything due to bad weather. They create savings programs and educational loans to build skills that take people beyond subsistence. In other words, they use revenue to cultivate the soil, not prematurely take profits.
Don’t misunderstand me: profit-making and profit-taking are not bad. However, the idea of calling a purely capitalistic business that “also happens to do good” a social enterprise seems to be a bit of a fantasy. There are always trade-offs. The social enterprise makes profits while asking what more it can do to re-invest those profits into the communities, people and relationships it is helping to build.
The story of SKS is not over. Some say this incident is but a stumbling block on the path to even greater microfinance expansion. But the question I would ask is, are those changes technical or fundamental? “Merchants” may look at Grameen or ACCION and say, “We can sell that product too,” but they are missing the point. “Farmers” focus on all the inputs needed for long-term growth in the community, not just the products that generate short-term profits. It remains to be seen whether SKS and others are nurturing or killing the golden goose.
This piece is co-posted at the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog.
2010 ushered in do-goodism 2.0. The opportunities to check-in, check-out, or slack-out “for good” have never been greater. Voluntourism is on the rise, as people want to see and feel more of their vacation destination than a five-star resort may offer. But there are downsides, as I recently discovered at a cocktail party fundraiser.
The otherwise delightful woman to whom I was speaking was explaining how she and her husband had recently traveled to Cambodia with their kids in order to give the teenagers an understanding of poverty and their responsibility to help others less fortunate than themselves. I was interested.
When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do. They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.
But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded.
It was then that I yelled, “It’s not about you!”
In my head.
Aloud, I asked her politely, “Whose volunteer experience is this anyway?”
Nick Kristoff’s recent New York Times piece on Do It Yourself Aid raised similar feelings. While it is great to get out and feel like “I’ve made a difference,” shouldn’t the emphasis in that sentence be on “made a difference” and not “I?” When the primary purpose of volunteerism or aid work becomes our own experience of self-fulfillment, we’ve crossed a line. And unfortunately, sometimes the term social entrepreneur with its emphasis on one person, is synonymous with a “me” orientation that is antithetical to strategies that have been effective in creating lasting social change. Similarly, some social enterprises may be praised for taking a bold approach that makes perfect sense to donors, but which might not be highly prioritized by those receiving. Recent criticisms of TOMS Shoes and other “buy one, give one” programs raise important issues. If TOMS Shoes are being sourced and made locally, then that is sustainable change. If they are shipped in, then it’s mostly plain vanilla charity with excellent marketing. Almost by definition, these donor- or giver-centered approaches can leave out indigenous/local groups that are working to help themselves, but keep getting left out of others “solutions.”
So that begs the question, how much should one’s own need for achievement, media, or notoriety influence decisions about giving? Volunteering? When, as funders, do our demands for metrics and causality shift from necessary rigor and become instead attempts to assign egotistical ownership? When is our desire to develop a strategy that is “unlike other foundations” truly innovative, and when is it merely chest thumping?
For foundations, I think strategic philanthropy, as outlined by many of CEPs studies and reports, gives a great framework for allowing impact — not ego — to drive action. And personally? Well I love feeling that I’m making a difference, whether it is buying green products or volunteering or contributing to organizations I love. By doing these things I create a sense of community, connection, and empathy that benefits me as well as those on the other end of that support. The act of giving is mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, it’s not only about me. Giving, volunteering, and the work done to support nonprofits becomes transformative when the goal is something much larger than just one person’s pride or fame or even self-actualization.
Do you have strategies for keeping your ego in check?
This piece was originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog which can be found at http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org. I am a member of CEPs board of directors.
This piece is my first post for the Center for Effective Philanthropy as a guest blogger. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (www.effectivephilanthropy.org) provides foundations with comparative data to enable higher performance. Over the years, CEPs surveys of grantees has changed the way the foundations I have worked at have operated. And CEP provides benchmarking that helped us compare ourselves to similar foundations and to our own performance over time. Despite my move to Singapore, I continue to sit on CEPs board. These blogs will be a few of my thoughts on philanthropy, NGOs, aid, Asia and effectiveness.
When I was fresh-faced and just starting to work in philanthropy at a woman-focused community foundation, I made lists. I would write down the problem or issue I wanted to tackle, then make a list of reasonable solutions. For example:
- Make it a crime
- Lock up the criminals
- Get women legal services for safety & to pay for the divorce
- Provide counseling for the kids
- Get mom a job
Then I would look at the money I had available (never enough) and divide it equally among each of the reasonable solutions. Confident I was doing all I could to address the problem of family violence, I talked earnestly with the board of directors about the importance of our “multi-faceted” approach. (now, that word looks quaint, but trust me you used it a lot in the 80s too).
Next, I would turn to the giant map of Los Angeles we’d hung on the wall and divided into what we called neighborhoods, but which were really more economic descriptors than geographic locations—South Central LA (Compton but not Ladera), Westside (Venice, but not Santa Monica), Hollywood (but not West Hollywood).
We would push pins into the places where we made grants—red for violence prevention, blue for economic development, green for arts, etc.—and we aimed to distribute those pins fairly and evenly from the San Bernardino mountains to the shining sea.
I did due diligence – financial assessments and site visits – on every organization that received a grant. We gave project but not general operating support. And we considered ourselves partners with the groups we funded.
And that’s how we did it.
This was what we called our strategy if someone had asked us that question, which really no one ever did. Far more frequently, what people wanted to know was “why should I give to a women’s foundation?”
Why I could talk about passionately:
– Because the status of women is a barometer of equality in any society
–Because if women flex our giving muscles to demand that solutions have a gender lens we will develop better solutions
– Because women are the backbone of financial decisions in most families and communities
– Because well-educated women give a lot more of their joint wealth to their husbands’ alma maters than they do their own
– Because sisters are doin’ it for ourselves.
The list went on and on.
At the core of the answers to “why?” was a belief that women didn’t want to be saved. Women wanted tools to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Women wanted the opportunity for hard work to result in something more than 63 cents on the dollar.
And that belief saved us from ourselves. It put us in partnership with the (mostly) women’s organizations we funded. Over the years, those partner nonprofits joined our grantmaking committee and our board of directors. They challenged our approach—why not general operating support? They challenged our funding partners—can Virginia Slims buy a table at an event? Uh, no. Their staff members wrote checks contributing their hard-earned dollars to the Women’s Foundation* because they felt like we were all part of the movement. And they helped us to understand how to prioritize “solutions” by telling us which ones mattered most in which communities, which ones were dead wrong in others, and how to add ones we’d never thought of ourselves.
We practiced an early form, I think, of what Peggy Saika recently called “democratic philanthropy.” Now not every foundation is willing or able to be as fully participatory, but it makes a huge difference if you can be. I learned, in those early years, that folks did not take kindly to the notion that their communities or their lives were problems to be solved. By starting from a place where we stated our “why” values and listened to theirs, we found we were in alignment. And that alignment allowed us to be on the same side of the table in determining “how.” And even working through massive disagreements on “how.” But that’s what partnerships are about.
In short, we found that good strategy starts with listening. And not just sporadic listening, but listening that is built into the processes of our grantmaking. If we understand how our grantees see the world, it makes us smarter, better partners.
* I am pleased to say that the Women’s Foundation of California has come a long way since my early days of strategy development at the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation 24 years ago. The Women’s Foundation of California is one of the most thoughtful, grassroots and policy oriented foundations I know and I owe them so much for helping me learn what I know about philanthropy and social change.