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Why People Donate

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been taking meditation and mindfulness classes at the Austin Zen Center. I started because of my interest in the neurological benefits of meditation, and stayed for the amazing people. It seems like every day I’m there, new ideas crop up about what mindfulness means within the context of social-emotional learning and how I can apply it to the Great Exchange. I’m especially interested in doing some research on mindfulness and Autism.

Anyway, while I came to the Zen Center prepared to experience epiphanies about the brain, myself, relationships, and our collective role as members of the same planet, I wasn’t prepared to hear the most concise explanation I’ve ever heard for why people donate to a charity or organization. One Saturday, after a meditation sitting and a Dharma Talk (a relatively nonsecular sermon about how we can become more compassionate) the Head Priest stood up to make some announcements. And at the end he asked, very humbly, for people to donate to the Zen Center if they had the means to do so. And he said something along the lines of, “I’m not saying this to get you to donate, but I’d like to point out how many people feel committed after giving a donation. And when you feel committed, you feel like you belong to that community.”

It was the softest “ask” I’ve ever heard, but the link from financial contribution to commitment to connection struck a chord with me, and I donated.

To raise money for a nonprofit, you combine a lot of storytelling with hard numbers; you’ll zoom in on one clear image of a person who was deeply impacted by your organization, and you’ll tell the story compassionately. People connect to this. You can then back your impact up with data, to prove that the one story isn’t an anomaly, and to infer that if you zoom out from there, you’ll hit many other data points that tell a similar story. That’s how we raise money, and we know this. But a more fundamental question to ask is, why does that work? And I think you’re selling the explanation short if you say that it simply appeals to a person’s emotions and moves them to act.

At the heart of the matter, I think, it’s that need to connect. People give because they want to be part of something; and if they donate to your nonprofit, then that “something” is your community. That’s really, really special. So in a way, your goal as a nonprofit organization isn’t just to help your clients heal and grow and learn; it’s to help your donors heal and grow and learn, too. Because we’re all just people and we all want to connect to each other.

At the end of a recent Thursday-night class at the Zen Center, my teacher read us this poem by Hafiz:

“Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
‘Love me.’
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear?”

I think it would be really revolutionary to let businesses and nonprofits start speaking that sweet moon language, too.

Looking Forward

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After what I’m officially calling a summer hiatus, I figured it was time to bring this blog, and The Great Exchange, back from the dead. I’d rather move things at an embarrassingly slow pace than not move them at all, and it’s oddly comforting that after four months of inactivity this little corner of the internet still gets about 30 unique views a day. Not much, but I’m frankly surprised we’re still seeing any traffic at all, and it shows that people are still interested in the cause.

My original goal for this blog was to keep it hyper-focused on nonprofit and disability-related material, but the fact is, the narrative spills over into my life all the time, given the personal nature of The Great Exchange. So on a personal level, I’ve been diagnosed with my own completely fascinating brain disorder. It’s called a chiari malformation, and the pressure it’s putting on my brainstem is the reason for my central sleep apnea. I also have syringomyelia, but if you ask me about that last one and I’m not around a computer to look up the name, I’m hopeless. And I’m having partial seizures, but they feel like nothing.

Surgery is sort of a “when, not if” thing, but it will be at least a year before the insurance company arbitrarily decides that I’ve paid them long enough for them to tend to my pre-existing condition. Still, I go to bed every night now with my arms wrapped around the comforting promise of a cure, and that feels great. Lack of sleep continues to be the most difficult thing I deal with, but it’s not really an excuse for failing to move forward with The Great Exchange.

So why am I moving forward with it again? Because it seems more important than ever. Because it still affects me far too deeply to go out to brunch with friends and see one man, clearly disabled, eating alone. Because the word “retarded,” even when it’s spoken with no malicious intent, still hits me in a primal and painful place. All of that.

And on an even more personal level, because I derive meaning from helping people, not making money; and until I can start doing that, I’m just going to feel like I’m spinning my wheels. It’s honestly a little depressing not to have anyone to help. I’m not trying to create a false dichotomy here, but it really seems like people are drawn to one thing or the other: financial impact, or social. And I actually don’t value one type of person over the other; but I do think it’s an important part of seeking happiness to determine which type of person you are.

So where does this go from here? Baby steps. The tiniest baby steps. And it’s hard to me to admit that, especially on a public forum, because it feels a lot like riding a bike up a hill in front of a bunch of other bike riders and finally acknowledging that you need to get off the bike and walk. Especially since my nonprofit friends are still reading this, and my writing friends too, and a lot of people who have made it very far – objectively speaking, farther than me – through pitch-perfect focus.

What I can do, this week, is clean up the internal pages of The Great Exchange’s site; and make phone calls and send emails until we have our first team assembled. The team doesn’t have to be big. I’d settle for ten Core Members and a couple of Allies who are particularly tenacious about getting through any nascent first-time confusion. And I think I can have an inaugural meeting within a month. And I think I can write one or two blog posts a week until it happens. And I think all of this is completely doable.

So, happy Fall, and here’s to a slew of meetings that get off the ground and a future that’s brighter than ever!

Singular Focus, or Lack Thereof: An Important Reminder

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The more we grow up, the more we realize we can’t do it all, don’t we?

I’ve always known that tailoring every element of my life to taper down into the fundamental goal of The Great Exchange would be my biggest challenge. That’s not wisdom; it’s obvious. It’s life we’re talking about, here, with its natural bumps and curves and variables, and the degree of control we have over any of it is debatable. This is perhaps the paramount thing I admire about successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs; they seem to have this effortless ability to examine that line between “life” and “work” and then to erase it as if it were a mandala sand painting, beautiful but transient.

I believe I am closer to starting and founding a successful nonprofit than most because as I grew up, I didn’t have to work hard to erase that line. It just so happened that the work I loved to do–being a voice–coalesced perfectly with the injustices I had watched my sister and her peers encounter. However, there are external elements that exist today that continue to give that line a sense of indelibility, and I’m making a conscious decision not to erase it yet.

There’s a sense of acumen in acknowledging your willingness to be unready. I’ve brushed up against these signs of age (or lack thereof) in the past, and it always feels awkward and paradoxical to admit the wisdom of not moving forward. I’ve been on the “right” track educationally, but I was 21. I’ve been in the “right” relationship, but I was 22. And now, at the age of 26, I’m on the “right” path to start a nonprofit–but I feel undone.

I want a job. A real job–not independent contracting, not sporadic film work, not Americorps, not scraping by while I hold an organization together by its bootstraps. Those are all wonderful, life-shaping endeavors, but I’ve never experienced a professional life outside of them. I want a job like the one I started two days ago, one that leaves me exhausted by the days’ end but also intellectually satisfied, surrounded by companions, and secure. It is inspiring to walk into a beautiful office every day and watch my talented coworkers do what they do. It is inspiring to feel instantaneously rewarded for the goals I complete. It is inspiring to watch the founder and CEO of my company work his ass off around the clock in a way I have never seen anyone work before. And I need that, for now.

This blog will continue, as will the Great Exchange. But for now, the blog will serve as a composite of the lessons I learn from my day-to-day experiences that I will someday apply to the best and most heartfelt nonprofit the world has ever seen. I will continue to build on the weekends, and I even plan on launching our first major event soon; but I will also rest. And when The Great Exchange launches full-throttle, it will come complete with the knowledge that I’ve tested every experience I’ve wanted to test; that I’ve created an exhaustive list of what I want out of an organizational leader; and that I’m ready to commit fully without having to wonder about the other paths I could have taken.

And should you ever arrive at a similar conclusion, in any element of your life, please don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I can say wholeheartedly that the acknowledgment of unreadiness is one of the hardest things I have ever done. To stare your dream in the face–or a person, or a place, or an idea–and to say, “I need a couple more tests,” is bravery. It is human, and it will help you interact with a greater sense of humanity toward every person you meet. And I can promise you that in ten years I’ll be telling you, as the founder of the Great Exchange, that working for another company for a few years was vital. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

I hope the nonprofit professionals who follow this blog will continue to do so, as I will continue to use it as a venue for applying the lessons I learn from a successful for-profit web development firm. And I hope the lovely members or family members of the disabled community who follow this blog will continue to do so, because every single lesson is still an arrow that points directly to the fundamental human right of providing our disabled community members with the respect they deserve. But my hope, most of all, is for the aspiring nonprofit professionals who have contacted me: if, at any point, another path seems enticing, please take it without regret. I can say without hesitation that you’ll fall back into your heart’s work when you’re ready to, armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything else you’d rather be doing. And that, friends, is the heart of a successful nonprofit.

Impact Measurement, Part 2: Questions We Can Ask About Kony 2012

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[I know, I promised something else for the second part of this “series,” but Kony 2012 is a phenomenon that warrants discussion. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled program soon.]

Before we begin, if you watched the ubiquitous Kony 2012 video and it inspired you to donate to the cause, that’s great! I highly recommend you don’t donate to Invisible Children unless you’re in the mood for funding Self-Congratulatory Film #12. Grant Oyston over at Visible Children did some research and came up with a list of great nonprofits that operate in Central Africa, all of which have received more trustworthy ratings from Charity Navigator than IC has.

Kony 2012, the internet campaign that rightfully denounces Ugandan guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony, is a great opportunity to ask questions about “awareness generation” nonprofits and decide for ourselves how we feel about their overall impact. I suppose I already made my stance on the issue clear in the first paragraph; but I’m not necessarily out to convince people that Invisible Children is a sham. This post will certainly not be without bias, but no matter where we stand, I want us to ask ourselves the following questions (some of which have no answers):

  • What are the implications of lumping such an important issue into a frantically consumed, frantically discarded viral culture? Kony 2012, by its very nature, is a meme–the social activism equivalent of sharing a picture of a cat who uses poor grammar. How does this compare, impact-wise, to the slow, sustained growth of knowledge and awareness? Will those who were driven to donate to the cause do so again in a month? In six months? In a year? In five years?
  • Does a campaign like this elicit widespread action? By “widespread action,” I am not referring to Tweeting, Facebooking, or sharing a video on your blog. I’m curious, in particular, about the well-intentioned souls who claim to have sobbed throughout the video. What did they do once they dried their tears? Did they call or write to a political figure? Did they do more research? Did they donate to an in-the-field organization? On a similar note:
  • Does sharing a video about a cause create a false sense of empowerment? Spreading awareness is so, so important. But don’t our responsibilities as concerned human beings extend beyond that? I could talk about disability rights until my face turns blue, and I certainly will; but I am not expecting my words to create systemic change. I am expecting my actions to do so. My words are just a conduit for meaningful information, so people can fundamentally understand how and why they should take the next step.
  • What is the strategy behind equating one figure with an incredibly complex issue? This is a great opportunity for me to break out the concept of metonymy, which I learned about when I was a student at the Northwest Institute for Social Change. Metonymy is the idea of using a single, tangible person or symbol to represent a large concept. It’s a psychological trick that allows us to grasp the intangible; and because of this, it’s a powerful practice and it’s certainly a strategy that all nonprofits should consider as they communicate their message. The problem emerges when metonymy is a stand-alone strategy. My beautiful roommate Jen spent time in Uganda building friendships and conducting interviews with female refugees. She is absolutely livid with Invisible Children’s consistently over-exaggerated claims about the LRA. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the bigger picture of what’s going on in Uganda, but watching the Kony video certainly didn’t help.
  • How meaningful is it that the majority of Invisible Children’s budget is funneled to overhead and media production? Despite their refusal to report certain information to the Better Business Bureau, Invisible Children’s financials are pretty clear. This is not an aid organization; it is a film company. As someone who spent a few years in the film industry trying to make social awareness films, I wholeheartedly support the goal of using film and popular culture as a mainline to our consciousness. For this, I applaud Invisible Children. I hope they will always continue to raise awareness about important issues in Uganda; but I do think it is their responsibility, as an influential media organization, to give people a clear picture of the nonprofits people can support when they want to take action.
And finally:
  • Why is it that the most successful nonprofits are almost universally the ones with the best marketing, and how can we use this knowledge responsibly? If there’s one thing Kony 2012 can teach all nonprofit professionals, it’s the overwhelming success of smart marketing. Because that’s what this campaign is: smart. Brilliant, even. So, study what works for Invisible Children, study it comprehensively, and use it. Use social media, use metonymy, use powerful storytelling. Find a great filmmaker in your area and make a film. Do whatever it takes to get the word out about your cause without lying, misleading, or manipulating. But do not, do not, do not let it end there. That’s not why we’re doing this, and any nonprofit worth its salt knows that.

Measuring Impact, Part 1

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How Do You Measure Impact?

"Nonprofit number three, will you accept this rooooose?"

Impact measurement is a big deal to me. It’s the root of the essential trust between a nonprofit and its constituents. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking for a nonprofit to support and it isn’t immediately clear how that nonprofit is evaluating or sharing its impact, run away from it. I’m serious. Why? Because impact is, quite literally, every nonprofit’s primary concern. If they weren’t trying to achieve a certain type of impact, why would they exist?

Unfortunately, measuring impact is also one of the most difficult things nonprofits have to do. Think about a for-profit and how it measures its success: dollars, right? Sure, they may consider other factors, but the fundamental concern is revenue, and differentiating between a successful for-profit and an unsuccessful for-profit is relatively straightforward

The success of a nonprofit, by contrast, is measured in degree of impact. The problem is, while dollar amounts are logical and immutable, impact is amorphous, slippery, convoluted, and transient. Say your nonprofit’s goal is to increase literacy by giving books to low-income children in a particular neighborhood. You dutifully measure, and in five years’ time, the children who were given books are higher achievers than the children of five years ago! Awesome! Except…now you have the fun task of figuring out what else might have happened in the neighborhood, besides your book program, that could have increased literacy.

So you do some research and discover that some new educational initiatives were pushed, the local Boys & Girls Club started a popular reading program, and the neighborhood library received an attractive new overhaul. Your books-to-kids program probably did still influence the overall bump in literacy; it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly how much. In a case like this, your impact is a guy who’s dating ten people and he refuses to reveal which one is the most important to him (sorry…as you’ll recall, sometimes I watch bad television).

The point is, measuring impact–especially as nonprofits grow city-wide or systemic–is an art form. A maddening, elusive, existential art form with no right answers and a lot of good guesses.

In other words, I love it.

Tomorrow I’m going to show you the first survey I designed to begin the process of measuring The Great Exchange’s impact! Don’t miss it–it’s going to be hot. It’s going shocking. It’s going to be the most controversial season of The Bachel–um, I mean of my blog–yet!

Sunday Morning Coffee: My Favorite Blog Posts of the Past Week

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Guess and Check's Weekly Blog Post Roundup

My darling friend Jacqueline Stuart used to make me lattes that looked like this.

Once upon a time, I wrote this to a friend about rituals: “We need…rituals because we can celebrate the individual differences of each event while taking comfort in their overarching consistency. The familiarity allows us a moment to breathe, a moment in which we don’t have to test our responses to new situations; and yet with each new version of the same event, more differences and subtleties become clear. We’re able to learn and grow just as much as we’re able to give ourselves a break.”

That said, I bring you one of the happiest rituals of my week, my Sunday morning (or afternoon, as it may be) coffee. Today’s delectable blend is Folger’s, poorly measured and badly burnt. What can I say, I don’t live in Portland anymore. This ritual is really important to me; it’s my time to peruse the list of blog posts I’ve read and enjoyed this week (I read upwards of 50 blog posts every night) so that I can parse different points into my brainstorm document, reflect on good ideas, and finally, share interesting information with you. Here’s my top five list for this week:

  • GOOD Magazine makes an interesting point about fighting world hunger. The answer could be bugs!  I always love a good reminder that many of the things we consider “gross” are just cultural constructs, particularly in the U.S.–I still remember David Foster Wallace’s point (in Consider the Lobster) that lobsters (considerably insect-like themselves) used to be considered so disgusting that they were only fit for inmates. Now, of course, lobster is a delicacy. Also, my old English professor would have an aneurysm over the number of times I just said “consider.”
  • The Charity Navigator blog is one of dozens to document Generosity Day, a thoughtful (and pretty cute) rebranding of Valentine’s Day. Now, this is particularly exciting to me because I grew up around people who called Valentine’s Day a “Hallmark Holiday” or a “Consumer’s Holiday.” I won’t deny the truth in this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love hearts, flowers, chocolate, valentines, and general sap  (third-wave feminism. Thanks, Smith College). Generosity Day is an excellent solution; it keeps the holiday’s inherent cheesiness in tact while shifting the focus from consumption to giving. It reminds you to spend a day leaving 100% tips, saying “yes” to favors, and donating your time to people or organizations. Arguably, it’s stuff we should do every day (maybe not the 100% tip), but campaigns like this are a great reminder and a way to re-situate ourselves within the sphere of giving. Plus, it allows me to continue being a cheeseball every Valentine’s Day, completely guilt-free. I can’t wait to celebrate again next year!
  • And finally, the Center for Creative Leadership brings us an interesting (and reassuring) article about the introvert at work. People never believe me when I say I’m introverted because I tend to be chatty and friendly (a common misconception about introverts is that they’re cold or reserved); but putting on that face takes untold work and energy, and I can only recharge when I’m alone. The proliferation of online social media is an interesting way to bridge the introvert/extrovert gap, and it’s one I take full advantage of. However, I often worry about the impact my introversion will have on my leadership style, and this article raises a lot of great points about the unique qualities introverted leaders can offer (it doesn’t surprise me that they’re able to listen to their employees better).
That’s all for this Sunday. Until next time!