This is my first article for our new website. I intend to dedicate most of my first year of writing for the site to sharing what I’ve learned as I grow in service to others.
Sharing my experience supports our #1 goal with this website, which is to convince other like-minded people that serving others is doable and can be very fulfilling. [more]
Quick background: I started poor and clumsy (sounds like Steve Martin in “the Jerk”) in the late 1990’s by incorporating “Free Hand, Inc.” It was a foundation named after my Mom’s saying that “if you don’t give with a free hand, don’t bother giving”. Mom detested folks who lorded over others, even if for a good cause.
I do one thing really, really well. I’m a marketing guy – define the need, then fill it. My market research in service illustrated that the poor don’t need more well-intended do-gooders; they need more effective organizations.
And so we established our first foundation with a mission focus which has never changed: To serve those who serve the poor.
Through a very dear friend, since passed, we found our first place to work – the St. Clair Superior neighborhood close to downtown Cleveland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the country.
From 1997 to 2007 we learned a ton about what to do and what not to do.
My first lesson, and it took years to learn, (in fact I still often make this mistake) is that my empathy can get in the way. That is, that my direct service and personal involvement often waste lots of my money and time.
Often, I was convinced by someone that their situation was “special” and could not be adequately handled within the framework of the nonprofit(s) helping them.
Example: A family from Africa that used the transitional housing project we supported convinced me they needed substantial additional support, which I provided. Much later I learned that the money was used for nefarious purposes. It took me months to get over my embarrassment and shame.
I made a very similar mistake supporting the very poor in Africa directly when we were already doing good work for the nonprofit professionals in charge.
Lesson: Leave the direct service in the hands of the professionals. They’ve been trained for direct service. I need instead to learn how to effectively support them.
On the other hand, I’m very good at business disciplines. Many nonprofit executives are not. And yet some realize they need help in this area to sustain and build their mission impact.
So whether you’re a nonprofit executive, or an engaged philanthropist, we all must be able to do a fearless inventory of what we’re good at and what we’re not – then stick with the former as we develop our work together. Focus is the soul of collaboration.
There’s an exchange in the movie “City Slickers”, where Curly the cowboy tells Mitch the city slicker the secret of life. It goes like this:
Curly: [holding up one finger] Do you know what the secret of life is? This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean s**t.
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiling] That's what YOU have to find out.
Though it is often difficult and sometimes embarrassing, I’m having fun finding out what my “one thing” is.
P.S. Next month’s newsletter will be called “Don’t Build a Traditional Organization to do Non-traditional Work” where I will share more trials and errors in service to others.