Category Archives: perplexities

Today I turned down a free Samsung Galaxy tablet. What’s WRONG with me?

Samsung Galaxy tablet

I really enjoy visiting my local Sprint storefront, but it isn’t usually a philosophically challenging experience.  Today was a little different.

My main reason for going there today was that the connector card that I use for mobile internet access on my laptop stopped working.  This took more than an hour to straighten out, during which I  waited around, doing as much work as I could with the help of my Samsung Galaxy smart phone and a portable Bluetooth keyboard.

The store associate who was helping me had good news: my connector card was covered by insurance, and a free replacement will be available. He also went over my service plan with me, eliminating a monthly $10.00 fee for an option I never use.  He then offered me a free tablet, if I added another phone line to my account, which would probably cost me $12.00 a month.  I explained that I didn’t need one.  He apparently found this not only baffling but mildly upsetting.  How could I not want a new device?  Didn’t I deserve a treat?  Wasn’t I tired of the small screen of my smart phone?

In fact, I like the size of my smart phone very much.  I also dislike making snap decisions.  I also wasn’t feeling like there was any gap in my life that a tablet could fill.  He appealed to me, to his colleagues, and then to me again to explain the mystery. I jokingly invoked Occam’s razor: “non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate  (i.e., “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”).

He then asked what I did for a living, I explained that I was a technology strategist for nonprofits and philanthropies, and that shiny object syndrome is a known hazard in the world of nptech. This had roughly the explanatory power of Occam’s razor – which is to say that it had none at all.  By this time, I was laughing at the absurdity of being pressured to take an electronic device that I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed, and he begged me to explain this.  “Help me to understand, so I can grow.”

I did my best to explain that sometimes more is not better, that simplicity can be a philosophical choice, that impulsive purchases did not necessarily lead to happiness.  He excused himself, and retired to a back room.  He returned with a tablet model that he had not previously shown me, a white Samsung Galaxy that looks a great deal like my Samsung Galaxy smartphone but larger.  (In other words, very appealing.) Unboxing it, he told me that not only was it free, but if I added another line and took the tablet today, they’d give me a $50.00 credit.  In other words, he was prepared to give me money to take an electronic device that he was convinced that I needed.

I ended up thanking him and saying that I’d think about it, and perhaps come back in a couple of days for it.  He protested that the $50.00 credit was only on offer if I took it today. I explained that I didn’t need a $50.00 credit badly enough to justify an impulse purchase, and thanked him again.

For me, it raises two sets of questions:

1) How do sales commissions work at Sprint stores?  Would the $50.00 credit have come out of this associate’s commission?  In fact, was it worth it to him forgo the commission he might have received in order resolve the cognitive dissonance he was experiencing at the thought that a customer would not take a free (and very appealing) tablet?

2) What is WRONG with me? I’m not such a disciple of simplicity that I never fall into the delusion that buying a specific object will make my life complete. So what made me so stubborn about committing to a new electronic device?  Is my geek cred forever destroyed?

Obviously, this Samsung Galaxy tablet is not just a mobile device – it’s a learning experience.  I suspect that what I’m about to learn is that in the next 48 hours, I will start craving the tablet, and having waited a decent interval to satisfy my self-respect as a judicious consumer, I’ll go back to the Sprint store and get it.  Cognitive dissonance is not merely something that happens to other people.

“Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing”

don't tell

 

Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field of nonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”

I wish I could tell you the story of my first experience with this tacit rule, but the people involved are still living, and they would never want me to mention their names or give anyone any information about the programs that they ran.  So please use your imagination.  All I can say is that all of the relevant facts about this organization’s programs are freely available to today on this organization’s web site, for anyone who cares to look it up. As far as I know, providing the names and phone numbers of the people directing the sites at which the programs are offered has not led to any catastrophes.

We’ve come a long way in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, thanks to leadership from folks at organizations such as the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the Caring Force at the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.  They have done some hard work in fostering collaboration, and with collaboration comes more freely shared information about what each nonprofit is doing.  (In my opinion, sometimes information sharing is the cause, and sometimes it’s the effect.)

I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providers can support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)

However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is an information age phenomenon.  As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where every stakeholder is a free agent online.  People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency.  So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.

Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture.  Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.

 

Disinvitations are painful but sometimes necessary

disinvited

I’m so excited about this evening’s pro bono tech consultation event for employees of local nonprofit professionals!

At the same time, I’m now in the painful position of needing to issue disinvitations to people who want to come.

Why?  Well, the reasons vary:

  • We’re holding this event in a building that has tight security, and were obliged to submit the final guest list last Friday.  People who try to enter without confirmed invitations may be escorted out ignominiously by security officers, and it’s best to avoid that.
  • We have a long waiting list.  The people on that list who honor our request not to show up without a confirmed reservation would be slighted if we allowed others to walk in.  Moreover, we’d be condoning rude behavior if we allowed people to walk in to an event that is by reservation only.
  • We have made it clear to the mavens that they will be volunteering their time to serve employees of nonprofit organizations.  This was made clear to the invitees as well.  It’s rude and possibly fraudulent to take advantage of free services that are intended only for nonprofit professionals.

I have a surprisingly wide conservative streak, when it comes to etiquette.  I am fully capable of being shocked when people are oblivious to (or intentionally ignore) the ground rules of events that are by invitation only.

 

Where I fail: Balancing between billable hours and volunteerism

Balancing Stones

Inspired by Beth Kanter, I have been reading and reflecting intensively about how we cope with failure in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.  Today, I’ve been asking myself what my biggest failure is as an nptech professional.

No contest:  it’s my failure to balance the work I do on a volunteer basis with the work I do for which I am paid.

It’s tough to say no to anyone in our sector who needs help and can’t afford a consultant.  Fortunately, I have a much-loved client, the Data Collaborative, that underwrites my time to provide strategic assistance for a selected group of nonprofits that would not otherwise be able to receive help.  Unfortunately, the number of hours of my time that they can underwrite is limited.

In fact, I hate to say no, and in a typical week I often put in twenty or thirty hours of unremunerated service.

The truth is that, if I didn’t have to charge anyone, I could put in sixty hours of work a week throughout the year with mission-based organizations, and still have a waiting list. 

The demand for my services is that high – even if the availability of funding to pay me is somewhat lower.

So the big fail is that in the last month or two I have neglected to balance all the work I do without charge with the proper number of billable hours.  This is a bad idea, and works against everyone’s interests.

Here’s why everyone loses if I don’t achieve more balance in my consulting practice:

  • If I don’t charge for my work, then I cannot pay for food, for rent, or for health insurance.
  • If I don’t have these basics, then I will die of starvation, exposure, or chronic illness.
  • If I die, my services will not be available to mission-based organizations who need me, for either love or money.

So here I am, acknowledging my failure to bear these basic economic realities in mind.

Now I’ll go a step further, and ask for help.  You can help keep me doing useful work, by referring potential clients to me who are both willing and able to pay for my services.

Thank you!

Dan Scharfman, please get well soon!

Dan Scharfman

Dan Scharfman, a much-loved colleague and friend, suffered a very serious heart attack earlier this week, and is currently in a medically induced coma at Mount Auburn Hospital. My thoughts and prayers go out for him, and his loved ones, and his community.

Dan is a revered figure in the local world of mission-based organizations and nonprofit technology assistance providers – a consultant’s consultant.  He serves as vice president of information solutions at Baird Associates, and as a member of the board of the Belmont School Committee.  He is an inveterate punster, a classisist, a devoted family man, an avid long distance runner, and a brilliant practitioner in the field of nonprofit technology.  It’s extremely unusual to find a colleague who is as at home under a client’s desk, trouble-shooting a PC that has crashed, as he is addressing a the distraught, technophobic board of a nonprofit that is facing a major information systems implementation. But Dan does that, and more.

Yesterday, I spoke at length to his close colleague and friend, Doug Baird of Baird Associates, about Dan’s condition.  There isn’t much news to report; not much is known about Dan’s prognosis yet.  However, there is much material for reflection; Doug and I found ourselves musing on the inherent injustice of a universe in which Dan, who is not only a exemplary human being, but also a fitness fanatic who trains for 100 mile races for fun, should be stricken with a heart attack.

Well, this isn’t a fair universe.  We don’t know why someone like Dan has to suffer a heart attack, and we may never know.  On both a medical level and a metaphysical level, it doesn’t make any sense.

However, I believe in the power of human prayer and human good wishes for someone who is suffering.  It’s another phenomenon that we don’t understand, and may never understand.  It certainly isn’t like ordering a pizza that is guaranteed to arrive exactly on time and with just the right toppings.  But prayers and good wishes do work for the better, and I invite you to join me in tapping into the power of love and healing on Dan’s behalf.

What I love and hate about serving as a consultant

love hate

Talk about first world problems!  I love my clients as people. I love the projects. I love the missions.  I love working on strategyI love nonprofit technology.

In so many ways, my professional life is a dream.  But it can also be very sad, because I’m always worried about becoming the consultant’s version of the overly attached girlfriend.  I end up loving my clients so much that I don’t want to wrap up the project.

The truth is that I love being part of a team.  I love working with the same people over time, having an office that is somewhere other than my home, and having an organizational affiliation.  If someone hired me to be a full-time member of team, doing the work that I currently do, I’d be in heaven.  But it currently seems that being an independent consultant is my best option for doing what I love.

I’m not wrapping up any projects at the moment, but of course I’m wrapping up the year.  I want to pause and tell my past and current clients how much I love them. It really is a privilege to serve them.  In my mind, they’ll always be my clients, now matter how brief the project is or how long ago it was finished.  I also want to tell them that my separation anxiety is my problem, not theirs!

But most of all, I want to wish them a beautiful new 2013 – a year of peace, joy, prosperity, health, justice, and fulfillment of all their goals.

Why we do what we do

Candles lit in memory of those who died in the Sandy Hook murders

The horrific murders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut are on my mind.

On a theological level, I’m deeply annoyed by people who try to comfort the families of victims by saying that it was God’s will.  I think that that’s both offensive to suffering mourners and untrue.  We don’t have satisfying answers to the general question of why suffering, death, and evil exist in this world, and we certainly don’t have satisfying answers about this particular incident.

This is how I summarize my take on this, as a religious person:

  1. There’s a lot that we don’t know.  Perhaps we’ll never know.  However, we can keep striving for understanding.
  2. God gave human beings free will.  We all abuse that free will at times. What happened in Sandy Hook looks a lot like an egregious abuse of free will.
  3. We can choose to turn away from wrongdoing and act as God’s partners in the project of tikkun olam.  That’s a Jewish concept:  the healing or restoration of the world.

I’ve been thinking about tikkun olam, and doing my best to participate in it, for years now.  I feel so fortunate, because I work in a sector where my colleagues strive to make the world a better place every day of their professional lives.

When I think of what happened in Connecticut on December 14th, I think of friends and colleagues who work with at-risk youth, of violence prevention specialists, of civic dialogue facilitators, of mental health care professionals, of advocates of access to health care, of teachers of young children, and of alternative dispute resolution practitioners. They are engaged in a long, difficult, complicated, sometimes discouraging, often under-resourced effort. They seek to prevent harm wherever possible, to mitigate harm when it can’t be prevented, and to create a world where there is positive good.

Most of my work, if it brings any good or prevents any evil, consists of indirect service.  By serving these people, I’m supporting initiatives that I hope will make a difference.  Some of the organizations that I’ve been proud to serve are International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Public Conversations Project, Family Service of Greater Boston, and Health Care for All.  Their missions make it so very fulfilling to spend my professional life this way.

More than ever, I worry about my friends and colleagues that work with such dedication for all sorts of mission-based organizations.  It’s not just that I worry about the safety of those who are on the front lines, such as violence prevention specialists.  It’s that I worry about professional burn-out in a world where there will have to be a significant change in the culture in order to achieve their goals.  And at the moment, I worry a great deal about whether all that heartfelt effort expended on behalf of mission-based organizations is really adding up to progress toward their goals.

In the nonprofit sector, we do what we do because we believe that real progress and real good are possible.  I do what I can because of a belief that I have something to contribute and because I find it satisfying to think in terms of engaging in tikkun olam.

In search of some wise and realistic words to sum up my motivation for sticking with the work, I turn first to Pirkei Avot:

And then to Martin Luther King, jr:

%d bloggers like this: