I am sitting down with a client for our first session. He is a bottom-line kind of guy, a self-made businessman; perhaps on the early side of 60. He has steely grey hair and a level, let's-get-to-the-point way of looking right through you. We will call him Joe.
Three years after selling his business, Joe is in the middle of a big project for a local nonprofit that serves kids in low-income neighborhoods. It has achieved great traction in the two years since inception; but now is the time to take it to the next level, and Joe is too close to see it clearly.
What he needs is to get the big picture across to the right people, in the right way, in the span of a single meeting – which is six days away.
(This is where I come in.)
Thing is, Joe's nonprofit project eschews the traditional nonprofit model. In his view, the traditional model is built around “spending money to build bureaucracy and dole out generous salaries so that nothing really changes” – a phenomenon that drives Joe "bananas." The problem behind the problem, he believes after spending years on nonprofit boards, is that the person receiving help is seen as “a child who needs help, instead of a human being with something to contribute.”
In the case of a local organization that serves the homeless, for example, a whopping 70% of the people who receive services never expected to find themselves on the streets. Something happened to put them there – they were laid off, or suddenly saddled with astronomical medical bills. This means that most of the population who comes in, once they get back on their feet, will never be seen again.
“I met this guy there once,” Joe recalls. “He had a family, and through some turn of events they’d become homeless. He had a huge amount of gratitude for the help; for the shelter, food, safety, support. And I felt passionately that he wanted to give back. But inside of this broken model, there is no way for the person who receives help to turn his gratitude and passion into a contribution. Inside this model it requires too much organization and bureaucracy to keep track.”
And so, Joe vents, that person’s contribution gets lost.
“The real tragedy of poverty isn’t poverty,” he says now, his eyes alight with conviction. “Some people are always going to have more and some less. The real tragedy of poverty is the talented person who gets lost in bureaucracy. It’s the person who could have done something with their gifts who became steamrolled by life. It’s the loss of potential. It’s the fact that we don’t see leaders coming out of the south city, or if we do, we see them leave.”
All this to say that when, a little over 2 years ago, Joe was approached by yet another traditional nonprofit in search of funding, one can understand why he was a little hesitant.
“Flat out, I said no,” he reveals, his gaze direct and uncompromising. “I said I’m not interested in giving you money so you can spend it building more bureaucracy so that nothing changes.” He regards me for a moment in the wake of this disclosure.
I ask how they liked hearing that. He laughs, and then shrugs.
“They were pissed. Obviously they’re trying to do good work, and they care deeply. So I said, look, I’m not interested in the status quo. But I would be interested in funding something that can become sustainable, by engaging the people you’re supposed to be serving.”
So they got to work, developing a project around feeding the kids. Instead of a cafeteria where “a lady in a hairnet plops a spoonful of crap on your plate,” why not build a test kitchen where kids can get engaged in the world of possibilities that food opens up for them? Where food is not simply a requirement for survival, but an opportunity for engagement and creative expression?
And as for funding? Joe grins: “We start with the expectation that the whole thing can be done at 100% volunteer, and the rest is just a challenge.”
The first step on such a path is to “stop asking people for money and start asking for what they do.” With that simple change, Joe's team found that people who'd been stingy with their checkbooks were delighted to participate: architects, contractors, manufacturers, and culinary interns all scrambled to donate their time and talents toward a master plan for the test kitchen.
Now, though, the time has come to raise the food. So the question becomes: how do you get the supermarkets involved?
In Joe’s world, “you shouldn’t do anything that isn’t a win-win.” A win for Whole Foods is when their customers spend money. A win for the person who shops at Whole Foods is the feeling that by spending a few extra dollars, they’re participating in something much more meaningful. “And for that,” Joe concludes, “we need a marketing guy.”
And there we have it: Joe is here because he needs one person to (1) see all the possibilities that exist around this project and (2) be so inspired that he offers to do the whole supermarket customer campaign – something for which he would normally get paid tens of thousands of dollars to do – for free.
By the time Joe and I wrap up our first session, I have ten pages of notes. By the time we sit down for our second session, ten pages have been whittled down to two. When I start reading, he is frowing slightly, unsure of what to expect.
By the time I am halfway through, his eyes are glistening. His head is wagging silently, back and forth. When I finish, he says: “Wow. This is it.”
Four days later, Joe sends me a message:"Met with the marketing guy. He got it, liked it, and jumped in with both feet."
The next day I meet with another client: a dear friend who has finally decided it’s time to take action on her biggest dream yet, one that will require millions of dollars in startup funding. As I read my synthesis back to her, she is nodding, her eyes growing wider and wider until, when I finish, she looks almost sick.
I ask how she is feeling. She says: “I’m just now realizing that this is so much closer than I thought. I thought I had so much more to go before it could become real, but now I see that it’s right in front of my face. It’s right there, and it’s a little scary.”
The truly amazing thing – the thing that I love about helping people with their stories – is that I didn’t make anything up for either of these clients. These are their dreams, their passions, their visions, their words; just pushed through a strainer of sorts, and rearranged in a new pattern.
Which is why it’s so funny whenever a client asks: “Will you create my story for me?”
Listen: Your story is already alive inside you. You don’t need anyone to create it for you.
The only thing you may need is someone who can draw it out; distill its essence; and reflect it clearly back at you - without all the head trash and the self-doubt and the tangents that tend to get in the way, when it’s just you alone in your head.
So that you can see – maybe for the first time – the light of your own true genius.