Advocacy, Culture, Politics

Schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune

Democrats and Progressives (distinct but overlapping groups) have been awash in schadenfreude since the Paul Ryan / Donald Trump Repeal and Replace legislation went down in glorious flames last Friday.

But don’t be fooled.  We didn’t win Friday.

No one who didn’t have health insurance got it last Friday.   No one’s premiums became more affordable last Friday.   No Medicaid recipient got easier access to the too few physicians who accept Medicaid.

Which begs the question: what does winning look like?   If it simply means beating Trump, Ryan and the Republican Congress, then it’s about power not progress.

But for those of us who call ourselves progressives, Friday was a big loss.  We failed to improve the healthcare system.   And we confirmed the worst suspicions of those voters who felt so locked out, so screwed by the system that they were willing to blow it up by electing a mentally unstable failed tycoon.  Their lives won’t be getting any better, which means they’ve been screwed again.

Those of us who call ourselves progressives need to fight FOR something.

RESIST isn’t an agenda.

Here’s a glimmer of hope, from my home state whose motto is Hope.

Rhode Island Town Hall Meetings

Let’s start talking about the public option.   Not single payer, but the public option right along side private insurance.

This from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, he said that a government-managed insurer would reveal what games private insurers had been playing. “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is to put a straight stick next to it. If you do that, the private sector can’t manipulate the market by withdrawing.”

We’ll need to fix what’s wrong with Medicare, like sweetheart deals that prevent the government from bargaining with pharmaceutical firms the way the private insurers do.  But Medicare works – providing good care to seniors and fair reimbursement to doctors and hospitals.

Let’s do something real to improve the lives of those people who think the system has given up on them.

Let’s make progress.   Let’s win.

Consulting, Culture, Marketing

Special Sauce

Those of us who grew up in the 70’s can recite it by heart: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.”

That was how McDonald’s sold the Big Mac, how they differentiated their hamburger from everyone else’s almost identical hamburger.  Everyone had beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions.  But only the Big Mac had the “special sauce.”

I was thinking about “special sauce” a few weeks ago as I sat listening to a consulting firm deliver the most jargon laden pitch I’d ever heard,  finishing 90 minutes later having left a room full of very smart potential clients drenched in special sauce.

First off all, be warned when someone is introduced as a “futurist.”  Pull on your boots because the bullshit is about to flow! Second, when every process, program, product and workshop has its own painfully clever name ask yourself whether the intellectual energy has been focused on the packaging, or the product itself?

I’m critical of the special sauce approach to consulting for two reasons:  because I don’t believe in it and because I can’t manage to pull it off.  If I was spouting that much crap in a meeting, I’d hear myself, and dissolve in a fit of giggles.  Never a good scene.

But the problem here is two-fold.  First, consultants use special sauce — the jargon, the proprietary names, etc. — to differentiate themselves.  To make themselves seem intelligent and innovative.  To get new clients.

And too often clients are seeking that special sauce to help them differentiate between consultants.  Rather than really examining the quality of the beef, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the crunch of the onions, and the quality control of the cooking process, it’s easier and quicker to reach for the one with the special sauce.

Analysis. Experience.  Reflection.  Clarity.  Results.

Those don’t need new names.  Those don’t need repackaging.  It’s what we owe our clients.

Hold the sauce.

Oh and by the way?  In 2012, McDonald’s admitted that the special sauce ingredients were “not really a secret” because the recipe had been available online “for years” – store-bought mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika.

So let’s have some fun – post the most egregious example of “consultant-speak” you’ve heard recently.

I can’t wait!

Branding, Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Failure to Launch: Innovation in the Non Profit Sector

Recent airplane time gave me a chance to catch up on some back New Yorker articles, and one in particular really grabbed me.  It’s a very fascinating article about Google, their approach to innovation, and the search for a self-driving car.

Several points jumped out at me as relevant for the non-profit sector.

First, all the tech companies and almost all manufacturing companies have a significant R&D function – well staffed and well resourced.  Non-profits don’t have R&D – everyone works 110% on operation of the current program, with incremental improvement a vague goal, but no serious R&D.  That seems to me a systematic barrier to innovation coming from within.  It may also be a cultural barrier against adopting innovation from outside.   Most organizations are like organisms – they have finely developed cultures that function as “immune systems” – resistant to outside ideas.

Second, all the innovators have an idea of the “moon shot” they’re pursuing, whether its self-driving cars, Google Glass, Amazon’s delivery drones, etc.  The non-profit sector doesn’t even have a vision of what the “moon shot” would look like.  So of course there’s no serious pursuit of it.  The sector is left idling on the launch pad because it hasn’t identified a destination.

And third, innovation is often produced by unorthodox methods.  DARPA’s use of the Grand Challenge is a great example of how they did something fairly out-of-the-box, particularly for a government agency, and by so doing, spurred tremendous innovation by a significant number of contestants.  All for not very much money, in the scheme of things.  The line that jumped out at me was that “in one year, they’d made more progress than their contractors had in twenty!”   The non-profit sector is fairly risk averse – reluctant to change vendors, reluctant to adopt strategies from outside the sector, etc.

It all starts with the vision of the moon shot. 

Imagine convening a dozen major non-profits from different sectors – innovative legacy organizations like Audubon, Habitat, ACLU, etc., along with a few disruptors like Charity Water and Do Something – for a private summit to envision what the moon shot could be.  And then add in some genuine innovators from outside the sector – people accustomed to breaking through conventional structures and systems.

That could be a powerful start.

Or we could continue to languish on the launch pad.

Idling our engines,,, burning fuel,,, wasting time.

Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Charity in America: Stepping Over Dimes to Chase a Dollar

While it’s often said that Americans are a charitable people, the fact is some of us are more charitable than others.  The most charitable among us?  Working class folks.  Here’s the percentage of household income given to charity broken down by income level, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Household Income                                          Charitable Giving

$50,000 – $99,999                                             6.0 %

$100,000 – $199,999                                         4.2%

$200,000 +                                                          4.2%

That means that households with the least amount of disposable income and households that don’t benefit AT ALL from the tax deduction for charitable giving are almost 50% more generous than richer households. 


I saw this principle in action two weeks ago.

Key West is a magical place for many reasons, but one of them is the contest for King and Queen of Fantasy Fest.  By longstanding tradition, the title is conferred not based on politics or any particular talent, but by which candidate and their team can raise the most money for AIDS Help, the local AIDS service organization.  The campaigns are grassroots and quirky, just like Key West.  Check out some of the candidate’s videos .

And while close to 70,000 tourists stream into Key West for Fantasy Fest, and pay upwards of $400 per night for a hotel room, the campaign is concluded before the wealthy tourists arrive, meaning all the money must be raised from the locals during their slowest and most economically challenging time of the year in a tourism dependent economy.

By conventional fundraising standards, it’s all wrong.  It’s tapping the wrong audience at the wrong time of the year through an endless series of low dollar special events – car washes, barbecues, karaoke, bingo, etc, etc, etc.  But all those wrongs add up to a big right: this year they raised over $200,000 literally a dollar at a time.

It’s the smallest of small dollar fundraising but it works.

Yet most charities look down on their small donors, treat them badly, and trade their names back and forth as if their giving and their allegiance were meaningless.  Most charities look down on precisely those donors who have the greatest passion for the cause.

Instead of stepping over passionate low dollar contributors to search instead for those elusive “high net worth individual” prospects, charities need to become more efficient and more effective at recognizing and celebrating the passion of their most generous donors.

Culture, Politics

The Arc of Justice

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away.

 We won’t die secret deaths anymore.

The world only spins forward.

We will be citizens. The time has come.”

“Angels In America”

In the 80’s, I protested two Presidents, picketed two Presidents, blamed two Presidents for ignoring my brothers dying all around me from AIDS.

In the 90’s, I supported the President, but was disappointed that he couldn’t magically make it all better.

In the first decade of this century, frankly, I tried to ignore the President, even as he made the AIDS epidemic a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Today, after almost 30 years of the AIDS epidemic, I welcomed a President to join with us as a volunteer.

As part of the September 11th Day of Service, President Obama chose to volunteer at Food and Friends, an organization started 25 years ago to provide food and nutrition to people with AIDS.  Today, the organization serves people with all life threatening illnesses – an institution built largely by the gay community, and now shared with the entire community.  Erik Hower, the Board Chair, Craig Shniderman the Executive Director and I had the honor of welcoming President Obama as he arrived.

I struggle to quantify how far we have come, because to do so, I have to take stock of where we started, and how horrible those days were.  Struggle to take stock of a time when even in hospitals, food was left in the hallway because of the fear of a person with AIDS.  Struggle to recall the depth of fear we felt as the disease cut through our friends.  Our own sense of personal vulnerability.  My own sense of my personal vulnerability.

I struggle with the memories of great people lost — great leaders, great thinkers, great friends.  In my first outline for this piece, I began to catalogue many of them.  But I couldn’t go through with it.

At the same time, I take heart from the inspiration of the people who stepped up and filled the vacuum with their own leadership.  There were heroes among us.  Today, when Food and Friends delivers a meal to a woman struggling with breast cancer, or an elderly couple struggling to stay in their home as one of them faces dementia, we honor the legacy of 25 years of heroes.

Today, the President of the United States volunteered to fill containers with soup.  Any by doing so, bent the moral arc of the universe closer to justice.

Obama F&F

We have become citizens.  The time has indeed come.

Branding, Culture

A Rotting Apple?

Steve Jobs is dead.

If you needed proof, just look at the latest advertising campaign from Apple.

It never would have happened under Jobs.

First, it betrays the fundamental Apple brand, which was built on innovative products that delight and amaze consumers, and permanently disrupt the marketplace, from PCs to cell phones.  But this campaign is not about a new innovative product, it’s about a way of producing new innovative products.

Which is what one talks about when one DOESN’T have any new innovative products to release.

The iPhone5 was something of a disappointment, in that it didn’t mark a significant step forward from the previous model.  But now the innovation pipeline seems to have stalled completely.  So let’s tell America how wonderful that pipeline is!

And second, even as a corporate branding campaign, it’s a deeply flawed strategy.  The campaign is actually focused around the company’s most notable negative, and in the course of doing so, spotlights that very issue – the origins of that device we all hold in our hands.  Because while they may well be “designed” by people in California, Apple’s vulnerability is that they’re made by people in China, working in horrendous conditions.

SNL nailed it in December with this brutal Tech Talk segment.

So the geniuses at Apple, realizing that Samsung (Korea)  and HTC (Taiwan) are gaining market share, decide that what they really need is a little red, white and blue sprinkled over their phones.  “OK, it’s not innovative any more, but at least it’s made in America…….except not really, it’s just designed by well paid people in America and then made by poorly paid people in wretched factories in China.”

Don’t you feel better about Apple products?

A good corporate reputation is a necessary but not sufficient part of a consumer’s decision to buy.  And if the product is innovative enough, its not even necessary.

Having failed to sustain innovation, Apple is now trying to compete (badly) on reputation.

Steve Jobs is spinning in his grave.

Culture, Politics

Of Course…………

In Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin’s brilliant play, Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe , Trudy the Bag Lady has been giving a tour of New York to a group of intergalactic visitors. She began by showing them a picture of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campell’s Soup can, and a picture of an actual can, and challenging them to tell the difference between soup and art. Near the end of the play, she returns to that theme in this fun moment:

“Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden I feel one of ’em tug my sleeve, whispers, “Trudy, look.” I said, “Yeah, goose bumps. You definitely got goose bumps. You really like the play that much?” They said it wasn’t gave ’em goose bumps, it was the audience.

I forgot to tell ’em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience!

Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things…that just knocked ’em out. They said, “Trudy, the play was soup…the audience…art.”

It’s easy and fun to focus on Paula Deen and her recent controversy, but not surprisingly, she’s the soup.

Instead focus on the art, the audience, and our collective role in the issues the controversy evokes.

When asked if she’s used the “N” word, Paula Deen famously answered “Of course.” The implication was clear – she was saying of course she had, and of course we knew she had. Her moment of moral obliviousness was actually a powerful accusation against the audience – “you’ve known or certainly suspected this about me and yet you didn’t care!”

What does that say about us?

The same point was made in June of 2010 when she participated in a New York Times forum.  Putting aside her Fractured Fairy Tales view of history, how did the audience sit through her calling out a black colleague, asking him to step away from a black backdrop so that he could be seen, and then dragging him up on stage to acknowledge the Missus? We can’t lay this off on the South. This was a supposedly sophisticated New York audience that sat through it, and then applauded.

Of course they did.

As a nation we tolerate without even noticing a sustained undercurrent of racism.

We tolerate a public education system that fails to graduate close to 1 out of every 3 black kids, and in some states its 1 of every 2. When the education system produces those same results year in and year out, it suggests not that the system is failing, but rather that the system is designed to fail those students.

We tolerate the televised spectacle of a black man hauled into the public square and required to display his papers to prove his citizenship. That it happened in the Briefing Room of the White House to the President of the United States is morally irrelevant. That we tolerated it is morally indefensible.

We’ve tolerated a growing sophistication in voter suppression of African Americans across the country. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act opens the floodgates to more widespread and systematic denial of the franchise to African Americans and Latinos. Yet the moral outrage last week was rather muted.

We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the soup. But that’s missing the point. If we turned our attention to the art, the audience, ourselves, then wouldn’t we be forced to grapple with our own racism, our own complicity?

Of course.