In addition to the indomitable nature of the human spirit, history has also borne witness to the ways in which moments of crisis present opportunities for innovation, reinvention, improvement, and transformation – at the personal, enterprise, and community level.

Along with the more obvious (and worthy of support) Nonprofit relief organizations putting their shoulders to the wheel during this challenging period in world history, a number of commercial enterprises and other private ventures, less accustomed to tackling this sort of circumstance, are rising to the test and inspiring their peers and partners to seek out new models in collaboration, community, and constructive social action. 

Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and others are doing the admirable work for which they were founded: providing services and support to the neediest among us, while also offering vital research and data to help enlightened nations accelerate their journey toward community, social, and fiscal health. Other entities are meanwhile also studying and leveraging their unforeseen circumstances in a noteworthy fashion. As we continue to travel along this unpaved path, possessing only a folkloric sense of our destination, and with no knowledge of the distance or time that we will be traveling, the responsiveness and visibility of many brands and entities will become case studies in corporate social responsibility, stewardship, brand positioning, sustainability, customer relations, and even profitability.

Sometimes a small risk is worth it, if the intent is good, and the initiative is thoughtfully manifest.

The simple yet important early actions taken by numerous grocery brands ( Trader Joe’s, Giant Food, Costco, Target, Whole Foods, to name but a few) to accommodate the higher risk members of our population by establishing special “seniors and immune-system compromised citizens” shopping hours set a tone of thoughtful accommodation that deserves mention. The goodwill garnered was a great bonus, in addition to any maintained or even increased sales volumes. While many questions were still being formed as to transmission, safety, and other considerations, many brands made decisions to welcome, accommodate, and protect those at higher risk, rather than wait and see. Of course, hindsight being what it is, emerging data might have shown the actions to have been somewhat dangerous or foolhardy, but that was not the case this time. Solid protective measures were taken (social distancing, masks, wipedowns, etc), and it was a win-win for all. Sometimes a small risk is worth it, if the intent is good, and the initiative is thoughtfully manifest.

 

An elderly gentleman, wearing gloves and mask, prepares to enter a grocery store

 

In the absence of clear and timely support action from the Federal Administration, commercial brands such as Crocs, Starbucks, Garnet Hill, and The Company Store  are donating their products to frontline workers, while brands including New Balance, Fanatics, Hanes, Razer, and others have shifted production to making masks for frontline workers. Numerous other companies have donated funds to the cause. This is the best of corporate social responsibility, but it has been necessitated largely because of national government failure to proactively and persistently address a crisis that was foreseen years ago.

 

As and when nations begin the laborious climb out of the present quagmire, it will be important to watch and learn from those infrastructures initiating methodologies that prove most successful at lifting up the social and fiscal health of their citizenry.

Innovation is often manifest at times of highest urgency, and always best realized at moments of purest intent.

Educational systems have meanwhile not been idle. While public and private schools alike scramble to find new models to minimize the disruption to student curriculums in 2020 (and beyond?), some standouts deserve mention: Logitech  is giving k-12 teachers free webcams and headsets as they transition to virtual teaching. Audible  is making hundreds of their audiobook titles available to students for free. Google, Zoom, and Microsoft  are all offering their online meeting and communications tools for free. This is perhaps where we can best see how stewardship and social responsibility can convert fluidly into opportunity. The move by Zoom to take the lead in offering free online learning and meeting facilities to K-12 institutions, notwithstanding privacy and security concerns that they aggressively addressed, skyrocketed the company’s valuation, and it remains strong. At the same time, competitor brands were inspired to not only step up and offer the same deal, but their go-to-market strategies for feature and function improvements were also accelerated and improved. The challenge laid down encouraged a whole fleet of online communication brands to rise together. Innovation is often manifest at times of highest urgency, and always best realized at moments of purest intent.

 

No alt text provided for this image

 

Schools are scrambling to develop new lesson plans, leverage heretofore peripheral toolsets, and accommodate previously negligible considerations, as they seek to shepherd their students through this challenging period, and give them the best education possible, under the circumstances. Very recently, some school districts have given up  on the experiment, citing overwhelming logistical challenges for both teachers and parents.

Meanwhile, around the world, institutions and programs are refusing to let this crisis compromise their commitment to the highest standards in education they are capable of offering. In “better” times, many institutions struggled somewhat passively under the edicts of bureaucratic regional, State, and even national governments. Today, teachers and administrators alike are demanding the best possible support for their students, and many parents are stepping up to help in ways not seen before. Organizations such as Girls With Impact  and Coursera  are offering their curricula free of charge, and educators are collaborating with impressive transparency and a commitment to high standards in learning and social health alike. Faculty at my daughter’s school, The Ethel Walker School, have been internally sharing best practices and discoveries with enthusiasm and impressive thoughtfulness, and I suspect many other institutions are doing likewise.

 

 

It becomes clear, the more I study the varied brands, industries, and markets impacted by this epidemic, that progress and prosperity will be realized first by those entities (professional or otherwise) that embrace a culture of service and community. Transparency and collaboration will be stepping stones that elevate us from our current difficult situation; cooperation and fact-based responsibility will be the guideposts.

Companies that find themselves in suspension can either close down or leverage their skillsets to innovate and enrich their sector and, by extension, our world. In Australia, enterprises such as Passions of Paradise, Wavelength, Ocean Freedom, Sailaway and Quicksilver Cruises are nurturing the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, during the tourism industry’s absence. SodaStream  is donating to global NGO WaterAid  which provides clean tap water for drinking and washing hands. The sparkling water company, based in Israel, also recently announced its commitment to eliminate the use of 67 billion single-use plastic bottles by 2025 and to switch the packaging for all of its flavors from plastic to metal bottles beginning early next year. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles company, Orly  has reconfigured its factory to produce 75% alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and 10,000 bottles will be donated to the City of Los Angeles  for distribution throughout the city’s at-risk homeless population. These are just a few examples amidst a growing collection of case studies in community leadership and industry innovation.

What case studies have you come across that demonstrate laudable examples in stewardship, cooperation, and creative innovation, during this time when many might otherwise trend toward apathy and surrender? Is your organization doing some interesting and inspiring work? Do you have a community-building and uplifting idea that deserves to be realized? Let us know!

Transparency and collaboration will be stepping stones that elevate us from our current difficult situation; cooperation and fact-based responsibility will be the guideposts.

present-past-future

I am a big admirer of Satya Nadella. However, when Mr. Nadella stated in a recent interview, “It always bothered me that we confused an enduring mission with a temporal goal”, he seems to be confusing and conflating the concepts of a VISION and a MISSION with the notion of VALUES. Perhaps this is an effort to distance himself and his administration from the legacy presence of the brand’s co-founder, but I fear that would be misguided strategy. Perhaps he was misquoted (it happens). Perhaps he didn’t say what he meant to say, or in quite the way he intended. Media interviews are fraught with the peril of partial clarity.

It bears reviewing that a vision statement should, if pursued properly, have an expiration date. At that point, the sitting leadership should reinvigorate the brand strategy with a new vision statement. Similarly, a mission is not well defined if it is not clearly achievable, and thus temporary. The values of a company may also change, but they can also endure.

Bill Gates’ vision of hardware ubiquity, expressed in his mission of “putting a PC in every home”, was well stated at the time, and largely accomplished, as Mr. Nadella concedes in this interview. Quite correctly, Nadella also points out the geographic and cultural limitations of that mission: a perfect opportunity to refresh the Microsoft brand, with a new more expansive Mission Statement, a new Vision Statement, and – if he and his leadership team so choose – a new Statement of Core Values (which is what I believe he is attempting to do here).

If a company accomplishes its previously stated mission, this is cause for celebration, not criticism and distancing. I hope Mr. Nadella will recognize and underscore this, going forward, and give his company the credit it justly deserves. I believe Microsoft has an exciting path ahead of itself, and how its leadership frames the past will do much to develop market and shareholder confidence in its future.

The Giving Gene

Most of us practice some form of charitable giving, at varying points in our lives. Very few of us, however, truly “indulge” in the pursuit of philanthropy. Good reasons abound:

  • Perhaps the means or the opportunities are simply not there. The economy is still shaky and, despite all the media stories celebrating declines in unemployment, we all know so many friends and family members who are desperately hoping for a job soon. Without a regular source of income, the idea of charitable giving is a difficult one to entertain.
  • Perhaps your order of priorities is consciously self-centered: your parents ingrained in you the belief that a good citizen has a social responsibility to not be a burden on the State. Welfare checks and unemployment benefits are marks of shame and failure to some, and financial freedom is the first priority, before one may explore the options for giving back.
  • Perhaps you simply believe in maximizing the value of your contributions: you did something to earn your money, and you want to be sure that you get the best ROI (or ROC – Return On Contribution – in this case). You’re not expecting VIP tickets to the Superbowl, but you want a clear indication that your contribution has been well spent. Something more concrete than a set of sticky address labels or a tote bag.

It is not difficult to find individuals whose actions manage to convincingly support one or more of the above positions. After years of hard-working wealth accumulation, the likes of Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, Charles Feeney, and Paul Allen have gained a new perspective on the world we all share, and finally see clearly what so few of us feel empowered to acknowledge and act upon: our individual lifestyles are affected, in one way or the other, by the circumstances of ALL those who breathe the same air we breathe, and drink the same water we drink. Ignoring or avoiding the plight or pain of others, simply because they are strangers, not only fails to elevate their circumstances, but also lowers our own standard of living, however imperceptibly sometimes. The mega rich sometimes have within them, or in their partners or spouses, the personality characteristics to ignite this late-blooming awareness, such that it springboards a philanthropic activism most of us would love to pursue, if only we were that well-off. Then again, many arguments that justify delayed philanthropy are just as easily undermined: there are those who have had access to extensive financial resources from an early age, and have subsequently dedicated their lives – and a measure of those resources – in service to society. We cannot all be Margaret Cargills or Juliette Gordon Lows, though. What are the rest of us to do – those without inherited millions, early stock options, trust funds, or family names that guarantee stock holdings beyond the wildest imaginings of the other 99%? Is it really advisable to give only when one has the discretion to do so, without the potential for negatively impacting one’s own circumstances? Is there a rationale for giving when one’s contribution may well pose a burden on one’s own circumstances? How much is enough? How much is too much?

Margaret Cargill and Juliette Gordon Low

The Power of a Little

There are literally hundreds of billions of dollars out there, waiting to be donated or, as I prefer to say, “activated”: small collections of cash,  the loss of which would have little impact on their donors, but the aggregate of which would have massive impact on beneficiaries. That $10 bill in your cousin’s pocket is itching to go to the right cause. Those pennies, nickels, and dimes in the jar by your kitchen door add up to $30 worth of dormant donations. Kids making pocket money would be thrilled to learn the concept of “Save/Spend/Share”, if only we might learn it first. There are three principle obstacles standing in the way of Common Folk Philanthropy, and each one is surmountable: lack of knowledge, lack of inspiration, and lack of empowerment.

As I mentioned above, many of us are hesitant to donate our hard-earned funds, when we know little about how those funds will actually be put to use. What percentage goes to fair operating expenses (core costs such as salaries, real estate, and development), and what goes to the actual programs of the recipient charity? News stories abound wherein unscrupulous “charities” hide avarice beyond anyone’s reasonable imaginings. What if your target beneficiary is not an organization, but an individual or family in your neighborhood about whom you know little, but who obviously would benefit from some community support? Perhaps you have some discretionary funds, but little to no time to explore and research potential recipients.

Let’s begin with the most straightforward of these challenges: how to evaluate the relative merits of charitable organizations. Charity Navigator is currently one of the most valuable resources for individuals and organizations seeking to make charitable donations: serving the philanthropic community for more than 10 years, the site aims to (in their own words) “…guide intelligent giving. By guiding intelligent giving, we aim to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace, in which givers and the charities they support work in tandem to overcome our nation’s and the world’s most persistent challenges”.

There are a number of resources – online and off – which one can tap in to and leverage, when researching potential beneficiaries of one’s generosity. A few examples:

  • Passionate about education and eager to help at a grass roots level? Check out Donors Choose for a healthy roll call of opportunities.
  • Want to help heal the world, but need some guidance as to which areas are in most immediate need, and which organizations might offer the best solution? Over the past ten years or so, Global Giving has helped nearly 340,000 donors contribute more than $90M dollars to small grassroots initiatives.
  • If you have a bunch of friends who share your desire to give, why not take a page out of the Book Club model, and create a “Giving Circle”, such as the Washington Women’s Foundation, the Teen Impact Fund, or the Giving Circle of Hope. The collective research and giving capabilities will empower you and your circle to maximize the impact of your donations.

Lighting the Fire

Information is crucial, as is inspiration. The latter is thankfully in ample supply. A simple web search or two will turn up hundreds of names and case studies in realistic philanthropy: individuals such as Curtis Monks, or Thomas Cannon.

Study the case of someone such as Hilda Back, and inspiration will follow:

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/10188872[/vimeo]

Or perhaps Chen Shu-chu, the vegetable stall owner in Taiwan, will hit the mark for you:

These people, and many more besides, take small steps to make a big difference. These steps must sometimes be deliberate, though sometimes they happen quite “in the moment”. A few days ago, I was invited to a small fundraiser for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. The hosts couldn’t have been nicer, and took the time to tell me the story of how they were walking in honor of a friend and colleague who had recently got Cancer. The fact that one of them had committed to selling his professional artwork, with all proceeds going to the charity, inspired me to buy two pieces (see end of article). The prize I won later in the raffle was something I knew another attendee would appreciate far more than I, so I took great pleasure in auctioning it off. The charity got a quick extra bundle of cash, which was great. That I looked quite silly while driving up the bids was just a bonus for my wife and daughter, who were watching and giggling.

The opportunity presented itself for me and my family to give within our means, and to make it count. I was given the information I needed to get a clear sense of where our money was going, and the return on my contribution was not only commercially tangible in the form of the artwork I had secured, but multiplied by the happy opportunity I had received to further enlarge their coffers, at no additional cost to myself. I came away feeling I got way more than I had given. This sense of empowerment and reward is an important one in today’s new paradigm of social giving. It is why many of the beneficiaries of crowd-giving aren’t even charities. Grassroots donors do not always need a commercial return on their contribution, but some sense of reward or recognition is increasingly required. Today’s emerging philanthropists are not content with simply signing a check to the Red Cross or United Way. They want to be empowered as active participants in the process, whether at the head-end transaction moment, or at the tail-end moment when the gift goes into service. How much one gives is a completely personal decision: one person’s gauge of what they can “afford” is always markedly different from another’s.  I don’t believe it is so important to focus on how much is being given, though. The paradigm shifts when the mentality changes, and it is encouraging to see how more and more people are getting involved the act of giving, regardless of its manifestation. It may be the conventional financial contribution to a charitable organization, or perhaps a loan to help empower entrepreneurs eager to lift themselves out of poverty (www.kiva.org). Perhaps you have a skill (app-development, web dev, marketing…) that will improve the visibility of an NPO. Maybe your interest is in improving the health and welfare of your own community…

The Changing Nature of Giving

When the line between charitable giving and investment is being blurred by ventures such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, who’s to say that supporting that local business venture is not as socially philanthropic an undertaking as donating to that far-off water well project? Both initiatives are designed to support and bolster community, albeit in quite different ways. The selling point is no longer simply the emotional appeal of the proposed beneficiary, or the 501-c3 status of the recipient organization, but rather the connective tissue that will bind the donor to that recipient. Today it needs to be more direct, more engaging, more reciprocal. Today’s grassroots donor wants their contribution to be a social undertaking. Unfortunately, many charitable organizations still fear the move in to social engagement, and are failing to take advantage of the enormous potential of the new paradigms in grass roots support. If you represent a worthy cause, charitable or not, grass roots fundraising is a powerful resource, and the social engagement platforms and channels available to you are numerous and diverse. Now is the time to act. If you are an individual, wishing to become more engaged in modest philanthropy, many of those same platforms and channels are designed to support your impulse to give, offering tools to inform, inspire, and empower you – as an active participant in your giving community, local or global. No excuses, only opportunities. This is the best time to be involved in positive impact initiatives, and you are the architect and captain of your participation.

(These are the two pieces I purchased: part of the fundraising exhibition entitled “The Wall Street Project“.)