Posts Tagged ‘business’

Back to Basics

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

One could almost hear the collective “sigh” as 2009 came to a close. It was a difficult year to be sure, marked with equal doses of tangible challenges and the fear of the unknown just beyond our view. Our daily struggles were made that much more difficult by the uncertainty of what else may lie ahead.

This nation has been through at least a dozen recessions, a couple of staggering market crashes and a Great Depression. We have seen times like these before, but that is cold comfort to younger generations who may not yet realize that we have always emerged stronger from our trials. However, there is a significant difference in this current crisis that concerns me: it is the simple fact that we did so much to bring this on ourselves. For that reason, I feel there are lessons to be learned and for the future welfare of the children of this nation and the world, I pray we learn them sooner rather than later.

I do see glimpses of a “back to basics” philosophy that is rising from the excesses that helped bring us to this point: in my life, my neighborhood and the broader community.  I hear Dennis Haysbert in comforting tones, extolling the virtues of “a home cooked meal, time with loved ones; appreciating the things we do have.” In a recent Allstate spot, he goes on the say, “It’s back to basics, and the basics are good.” Incidentally, this is not a plug for Allstate, but I proudly quote Dennis because I know what a great man he is and that those lines are something he actually believes. Further  we have worked closely with the Allstate Foundation and I can tell you that Jan Epstein at the Foundation is one of the great souls on earth. But I digress!     

As one who seeks to address need on a daily basis, I consider lessons we have been forced to learn in 2009 to be worth learning and long overdue. But my fears are twofold: first, lessons are all-too-easy to forget: when gas hit $4.00 a gallon, we were all suddenly conservationists and the predictions were bleak for SUVs and other giant forms of transportation. The talk was all about hybrids and smaller cars and transportation rather than vehicles that show our status. However, within weeks of price moderation, it proved to be a short-lived lesson.

Second, there may be some, perhaps many, who do not see any lessons to be learned. There are folks who see much of what has happened as someone else’s fault and therefore nothing they can do will make things any better. But try as we might to shift the blame, we cannot escape the fact that greed, impatience and selfishness has much to do with our dilemma - and it was not all corporate. Sure we were spoon-fed bad mortgages, but we as consumers used them to buy houses we could not afford, temporarily suspending all common sense. Available credit was, well, too available, but we still had the power as to how much we would use. And these complex financial instruments that defy explanation and have nearly wrecked the markets didn’t seem so bad when our individual portfolios were growing by leaps and bounds.

As economic indicators point to clear signs of recovery (albeit a slow one), I wonder if the pain has been meaningful enough to spare us from repeating this desperate scenario down the road. I realize that is a harsh thing to say and will not sit well with someone who recently lost their home or job, but on a more global societal scale, I think this is an important point because it is clear to me that those in need depend upon the generosity of those whose lives are more stable, more in tact. Children here and around the world, rely on the fact that there are those who can and will help them rise above their poverty and need.  This country has always been the stable, willing and generous source, for as long as I have been alive. It would be tragic to relinquish that role because of our own greed and selfishness.

As for us in the non-profit space, are there lessons to learned, specific to philanthropy? The answer here, from our perspective is again, “yes.” Just a few lessons that perhaps an advisory firm would be the first to notice:

Don’t let an ongoing donor turn into a line item on the budget.
Do not fail to appreciate ongoing donors because they have established themselves as reliable. Report, communicate, acknowledge and did I mention, report! Every day we meet with donors who express frustration over the fact that in the beginning, they could see the impact of their support with a given charity. But over time, the communication breaks down and the accountability tends to wane. This may go without saying, but in this current environment, we would all do well to take care of existing support rather than trying to generate new donors. Now more than ever, a charity needs to prove its value.

Do not assume your message is clearly understood.
While this applies to the previous issue, it is also different. One of the real challenges in the non-profit world is communicating a relevant message. In an economy where the “casual donor” is disappearing, we can no longer count on small donation based purely on personal relationships who may or may not understand your mission, but give anyway.

 Now is the time for charities to state their case, clarify exactly what it is they do, as well as how they measure results. Like the proverbial mechanic whose car is always broken down in the yard, we in the non-profit space sometimes becomes too preoccupied with mission and fail to take care of our own marketing and messaging needs.

Consider partnerships and joint efforts.
In the for-profit space, mergers and acquisitions, take-over’s and competition are a way of life. Those terms have rarely been applied to non-profit work because we feel so good about what we are doing and after all, it is charity!

I would reexamine that attitude. If there are other organizations that you would be better to partner with, join with or otherwise combine with, do so. So much overhead and administration in the charity space is needlessly replicated. Good intentions are not enough of a qualifier to start a charity and deserve the public trust. When you accept precious donated funds, you have a fiduciary responsibility and if you find your passion has turned into an unwieldy administrative and compliance nightmare, perhaps there is another way you can be part of the solution. Again, a possibly harsh concept but we need to be honest and admit that sometimes passion and even ego can get in the way of better judgment when it comes to charitable efforts.

As we emerge from this difficult period, it is worth asking ourselves, are we more compassionate? Do we care more or less…about those in need? Has the struggle made us tougher, or gentler? Have we become smarter through it all?

Would we actually consider spending less on a car, feeling that perhaps the money could be better used elsewhere? Do we look at the size of a house differently than we did before? Does the family inside matter more than the square footage? Could our recreational budgets be pared down just a bit, in favor of helping someone in need? Could we consider taking our name off the CEO line and providing our passion and talent to an organization that is delivering better results?

These are deep and potentially annoying questions that no one has the right to suggest. They are questions better asked of ourselves, and I am confident that there are those who are asking them. I hope these will be the next generation of leaders that will keep us from a past we do not want to re-visit.

-Rick B. Larsen

The Leadership Test

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I recently read a new book titled The Leadership Test, by Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D. A book on leadership may, on its face, not sound very interesting. After all, as Dr. Clark cites in his book, there are literally thousands of books written on the topic of leadership. In fact so many that, “assume[ing] the average width of a book spine is one inch, the stack of books on leadership would be over 30,000 feet high.”  That vivid illustration begs an interesting question however… “Why?” Why so many books and so much thought given to one single subject? And what could a book that, by my measure, is only about a quarter of an inch thick, add to an already crowded space?

Leadership in the non-profit space is, as in the for-profit world, a valuable commodity. The reason we talk so much about it is because we value it so highly, and all too frequently, suffer from its absence. As the author puts it, “Everyone is trying to figure it out. Everybody is looking for the secret.” He then offers a definition that was of particular interest to me as one who relies on people willing to act and, at times, make sacrifices. “Leadership is the process of influencing volunteers to accomplish good things.” If you are not necessarily focused on charity work and the word “volunteer” just reduced your interest in this, stay with me for a moment.

Whether we lead a corporation, small business, charity, classroom or family, we depend upon, in the best scenario, volunteers. Even if you pay employees, there are only three reasons they follow you: they are manipulated, you have effectively persuaded them, or they are coerced. If you view the actions of those who look to you for leadership on this continuum, you can draw a very important lesson on leadership. If your employees, teammates or children, are effectively persuaded, they are now…volunteers. And a volunteer will go to extraordinary lengths to serve the vision of the leader. I find this profoundly simple concept to be of great value.

One more point before I risk spoiling the book: if this manner of leadership is so effective, then why is it so hard to come by? The answer offered, and again in a magnificently simple way… “Leadership puts pressure on the relationship between stewardship and self interest.”  In my chosen field of philanthropic work, I am privileged to work with some of the best hearts…and minds. Self-interest, while it may exist, rarely plays a distracting role in charitable work. But it can, and when it does the process changes. It becomes even more apparent at times outside the charity realm where self-interest has, in the opinion of some, nearly wrecked our economy.

I find this a timely “read” and recommend it as among the very first things you read for 2010 (or the last thing you read in 2009!). It just may cause you to think less of your interests, more of those of others, and in the bargain, you will get more of what you wanted anyway!

-Rick B. Larsen