Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inspired Colorado Speech Excerpt

Oddly enough, the theme “Inspired Colorado” was one of the more challenging topics I’ve been presented with for my remarks.  “Inspired Colorado” was difficult because there is so much inspiration in our work.  How to narrow it down?  We are surrounded by inspiration every day.  We stand in awe of our amazing nonprofits who work at the intersection of imagination and integrity.  We rely on our workplace partners who make space for philanthropy each year and inspire millions of dollars in giving.  And we stand on the shoulders of unheralded giants, our donors, everyday philanthropists changing the world $1 at a time.

Instead of looking out to all that inspires me, I decided to look within to share what inspires me.  I also stand on the shoulders of unexpected giants.  Not only in my work with Community Shares but on the path that brought me here.  In April I was fortunate to spend some time at my family’s cabin on the Washington coast with my parents, cousin, aunt, and my 91-year old grandmother.  Mind you, she isn’t one of those cute, cuddly grandmothers.  Because she doesn’t like the taste of water, she’s hydrated solely by coffee and Milwaukee’s Best Light.  She’s sarcastic, sharp as a tack, and only recently stopped chopping her own wood.  When I offered to help her to the car this Christmas she pushed me over the back of the couch and said, “Maybe you should help yourself.”  That’s my Granny.  One day during our time at the cabin I told her in passing that I liked her coat.  She told me, “You know, I have 27 coats.  I counted.  I just love coats.  I never had one when I was a little girl so now I love having them.  It’s the same with shoes.  We didn’t have shoes.  Now I have a lot of shoes.  I know I have too many coats and shoes but it’s hard to let them go when you grew up without having them.”

My grandparents on both sides of my family grew up in poor farming communities in the rural Pacific Northwest.  My parents are both first generation high school attendees.  Not graduates, attendees.  My grandparents were all needed on their farms and when the farms went away they worked in a series of jobs to make ends meet and keep shoes on the feet of their kids.  My parents both went on to put themselves through college and moved to Seattle where my sisters and I were raised.  Last year I was the last of the three daughters to finish her Master’s degree.  That’s a lot of changes in two generations.  My grandmother is smarter than me and works harder than me but we were dealt a very different set of opportunities.  I don’t forget that.

Most of us in this room have received a generous supply of opportunities.  Friendships.  Family.  Education.  Employment.  Some opportunities are ladders to reach new heights.  Most of us also have the opportunity of a safety net in case we stumble.  And you are here tonight because you choose to share those opportunities with others.  I know I didn’t get here because I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.  I’m here because I have a grandmother who aspired to one day have shoes.

None of us got here alone and what inspires me is when we recognize that and share our opportunities and abundance with others.  That is what we are celebrating tonight.  On behalf of Community Shares, thank you for your inspirations and investing in the aspirations of others.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Overhead Myth: Embracing the Business of Philanthropy

Summary: A recent survey found 62% of Americans believe nonprofits spend too much money on overhead.  Increasingly, the most critical determination of a nonprofit’s effectiveness is a low overhead ratio.  Unfortunately, nonprofits are complicit in focusing attention on how little we spend instead of how much we accomplish.  By perpetuating the “overhead myth” by trumpeting low overhead percentages, nonprofits are caught in a self-defeating cycle.  When nonprofit leaders buy-in to overhead as a good measure of our effectiveness, we place limits on ambition and innovation.  By banding together to push for a deeper understanding of the business of philanthropy, we invite donors to think with greater complexity about our work and the type of investments necessary to make meaningful change.

Originally published by the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s October/November 2013 newsletter, “Nonprofit Colorado.”

The Overhead Myth: Embracing the Business of Philanthropy

The good news for the nonprofit sector is 2013 is the year people started addressing “the overhead myth” in a meaningful way.  The bad news is nonprofits need to adopt a unified front to debunk overhead costs as the best measure of effectiveness which may not be in the best interests of individual nonprofits in the short-term.

To effectively execute its programs a nonprofit must spend money on management to plan and build the infrastructure of the organization and fundraising to cover program and management expenses.  Money spent on these two activities – managing an organization and generating income – is known as “overhead”.  The “overhead myth” is that money spent on these activities is wasteful and donors should avoid funding these activities.  The issue is further oversimplified by using the ratio of overhead expenses to all expenses as the single greatest determinant of a nonprofit’s effectiveness.

Whether or not you work in the nonprofit sector you’ve probably heard some of the following sentiments: “How much of my money actually goes to programs?”  “If it were really a charity the people would work there for free.”  “If they can afford to mail me a fundraising letter, they don’t need my money.”  These thoughts all stem from the perception that nonprofits don’t spend money effectively.  A BBB Wise Giving Alliance survey found 62% of Americans believe nonprofits spend too much on overhead.  

Along with the complex social issues nonprofits address, we also must contend with the general perception that most nonprofits don’t run businesses well.

Over time, this has led to a sector that overtly cannibalizes itself by juxtaposing individual success with a myth we know is self-destructive.  Every time a nonprofit trumpets a low overhead percentage, the myth that nonprofits are generally inefficient is given greater authority.  The nonprofit sector is caught in a self-defeating cycle and it is time to make a collective effort to fight “the overhead myth.”

Three Major Myth Busters

The first signal of changing times was when Dan Pallota’s March 2013 TED Talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”, went viral.  In his talk, Pallota questions why a ratio has become so much more important than results.  He argues that a small nonprofit with a 3% overhead raising $10,000 for the hungry should not be considered more effective than a fundraising nonprofit with 40-50% overhead that raises $100,000,000 for the hungry.  He rhetorically asks, “Although donors are taught to value the low overhead percentage, what would the hungry prefer?”  This highlights a key contradiction of using the overhead ratio as a measure of success: as funders want us to focus more on outcomes than outputs, our primary measure of success is still based on a calculation of outputs.  Pallota asks us to consider whether equating morality with frugality when it comes to nonprofit financial decision-making is an effective way to solve large-scale problems.

In June 2013 came a second high profile effort to change donors’ perception of infrastructure costs.  GuideStar, Charity Navigator, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance issued a joint letter to the American people titled. “The Overhead Myth.”  The three most accessed sources of information about nonprofits said it simply, “The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.”  The groups went a step further to suggest that most nonprofits should actually spend more on overhead.  The letter included the following language nonprofits should use to translate the concept of overhead to donors: “Overhead costs include important investments charities make to improve their work: investments in training, planning, evaluation, and internal systems—as well as their efforts to raise money so they can operate their programs.”  It says a lot about the nonprofit industry and our “watchdog” counterparts that making the case for running a strong business was revolutionary.

Back in 2009, Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article titled, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle”, which was highlighted in the “The Overhead Myth” letter.  The article exposes the self-defeating cycle in which nonprofits participate.  The first step is the unrealistic perception of overhead costs held by many donors and funders.  The second step is pressure to conform to the expectations.  The next step is the nonprofit response: “They spend too little on overhead, and they underreport their expenditures on tax forms and in fundraising materials. This underspending and underreporting in turn perpetuates funders’ unrealistic expectations.”  This leads to donors and funders continually expecting nonprofits to do “more and more with less and less – a cycle that slowly starves nonprofits.”

These three developments in breaking the overhead myth were groundbreaking for nonprofits.  The sector finally had external voices arguing that infrastructure is a necessary part of a good business; even, if not especially, businesses dedicated to long-term social benefit rather than short-term profit reports.

Smart Overhead is Good Business

In the private sector, overhead is similarly made up of as “SG&A” (sales, general, and administrative) and is viewed as a necessary element of doing good business.  Different industries have different tolerable ranges of overhead percentages and it is accepted those ratios will fluctuate over the course of the business lifecycle.  While you endeavor keep these percentages low, you also make space for R&D, building your human capital, and the cost of launching new products and acquiring new customers.  If you didn’t spend money on these things, you would be considered a poor business leader.

Imagine you have a friend who is asking you to invest in her new pottery business.  Being a smart investor, you ask her a few questions about her management perspective.

“I see you’re naming your store ‘Poverty Pottery’.  That’s an interesting name.  Did you get any marketing advice before developing your brand?”

“On no…  It’s not about the brand; it’s about the pottery.”

“How are you going to get the word out about your business?”

“I don’t think it’s right to waste money on advertising that could be used making pottery.  I’ll set up a Facebook page.  Maybe I’ll get some friends to set up a table at street fairs on weekends and hand out flyers.”

“What kind of technology are using to track sales?”

“Software is very expensive!  There is an amazing option that exists but I would rather spend money on the pottery.  When in doubt, more pottery!  We are pretty resourceful about plugging holes.  We’ll cobble together some Excel sheets for now.”

“The industry you are working in is extremely complex.  In fact, no one has ever solved poverty, I mean pottery.  How did you find the right people on your staff?”

“I’ve found that people with experience in pottery are incredibly expensive.  I look for people with a can-do spirit and pay them very little.  They don’t stay very long but there are a lot of people who feel strongly about pottery so I can replace them fairly quickly.”

“What are you going to do with my financial investment?”

“Well, I absolutely assure you I won’t invest it in building the infrastructure of my business.  100% will go to pottery.  That’s how effective I am.”

“How are you going to keep this business going with so many challenges?”

“That’s the beauty of it!  I pay myself last and work double shifts when needed.  This business doesn’t work without some sacrifices at the top.  It’s a stretch sometimes but you can count on me.”

“Let me think about this for a day or two.  I mean, it is beautiful pottery.”

After this conversation, it would be clear you were being asked to invest in a business that is destined to fail.  Yet, in the nonprofit industry, the answers above are the functional norms for too many organizations.  Spend as little money as possible on infrastructure.  Only invest in improvements when they are absolutely necessarily and fully funded.  Money spent on overhead is money wasted.  Continually get leaner or your donors will leave you.

What We Can Do to Debunk the Overhead Myth

1. Stop Spreading It!

Nonprofits have been our own worst enemy by embracing the overhead myth when it suits us.  Every time a nonprofit trumpets its low overhead it is tacitly buying-in to low overhead as the most legitimate measure of quality operations.  It’s time to stop focusing on how little we spend and start focusing on how much we accomplish.  Less reporting on ratios, more reporting on results.

This includes Community Shares.  We are rated 4-Stars by Charity Navigator and only 10% of nonprofits achieve this rating for three consecutive years.  Unless significant changes are made to their rating system, I will make the case to my board and staff we should stop highlighting our rating in 2014 or couch it on an educational page about the importance of infrastructure.

2. Translate the Jargon

Explain to your donors what we are actually doing when we are accumulating big, bad, overhead.  Point out smart uses of administrative and management time and funding.  Highlight short-term wins and the importance of long-term planning. 

3. Think Long Term

Identify specific donors (e.g., small business owners, entrepreneurs) that may prefer to support you as investors in infrastructure improvements.  They may even want to play a collaborative role in identifying long-term operations improvements.
In the end, we’re all in this industry together.  When we buy-in to overhead as a good measure of our effectiveness, we place limits on ambition and innovation.  By banding together to push for a deeper understanding of the business of philanthropy, we invite funders to think with greater complexity about our work and the type of investments necessary to make meaningful change.

Alyssa Kopf is the CEO of Community Shares of Colorado and has a MBA from the Daniels College of Business at University of Denver.  Community Shares connects Coloradans to the charities and causes they care about most.  Community Shares features a diverse donor base and an inclusive nonprofit membership base.  With an average donor gift of less than $1 a day, Community Shares has raised $26+ million for Colorado nonprofits.  Connect with Alyssa at www.linkedin.com/in/alyssakopf/.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Market Disruptions and Nonprofits

The good news is I hear the words "business model" in conversations with nonprofit leaders at an increasingly frequent rate.  Early in my career this throw-away comment by a panelist changed my perspective on my work: "'Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model."  While I do hear the term "business model" more often, there is still a deficit of nonprofits with the knowledge and experience to be able to fully articulate their business model in a construct that encourages disruption thinking.

Although I continually cycle through risks and threats to the nonprofit I run, until starting business school I didn't have all the tools I needed (along with the business vocabulary) to (1) identify disruptions, (2) compare business models, and (3) make the type of refinement and positioning decisions to survive disruption.

A disruption could be due to a new entrant to the market, a new value expectation of consumers, disruptive innovation, or disruptive technology. Many old guard nonprofits have been entirely supplanted due to disruptions.  Examples of technology disruptions in the nonprofit sector:
  • The internet and social media changing traditional donor relations
  • Nonprofits with a core service of gathering information and making connections (volunteer centers, resource centers, associations); services that can now be completed by individuals using the internet
  • Advocacy membership organizations struggling to communicate the value-add of membership
As Community Shares begins a new phase of strategic planning, I am strongly advocating we focus on disruptions and our ability to compete.  Some examples of disruptions torpedoing Community Shares:
  • Corporate philanthropy being displaced by cause marketing
  • The internet is a disruptive innovation on several levels - most importantly making it easier for small nonprofits to be able to accept a high volume of small donations
  • The entrance of for profit companies reframing philanthropy as contests, initiatives, and one-time events
  • Most devastating, the misleading message of "free" in the sector - the equivalent of offering a similar product at a lower price
Although the "culture of free" refers to the movement to make creative content free, I believe the culture of free (free information, free download, free shipping, fee-free) is a crippling disruption to the nonprofit sector.  For Community Shares, there is a growing value expectation that there should be no fees associated with charitable gifts.  High profile campaigns trumpeting "no fees" (e.g., GivingFirst.org, Whole Planet Foundation) access to far superior resources (foundation corpus, corporate profits) and have inadvertently made it harder for nonprofits to justify necessary fundraising costs.

For years, Community Shares' greatest market competitor was United Way.  Now our greatest disruptive force is the rapidly changing value expectation of our donors for our services.  How will Community Shares compete with free?

You can download a free copy of the Harvard Business review article Surviving Disruption at Innosight.

How well is your nonprofit positioned to survive disruption?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

$40 Trillion Wealth Shift

$40 Trillion Wealth Transfer
A certain segment of Gen X Millennials are anticipated to inherit $40 trillion dollars between now an 2050. Some project 15% of that wealth will be distributed philanthropically. What does that mean for community-based nonprofits?
Alyssa's parents will be be transferring a priceless wealth of memories, a topic rarely covered at planned giving roundtables
First, let's take a look at the type of younger donor typically surveyed about this shift. For the report, "Next Gen Donors: Respecting Legacy, Revolutionizing Philanthropy" survey respondents had to meet at least one of the following criteria:
  • Personal net worth of at least $500,000
  • Personal income of $100,000 or more
  • Endowed family philanthropic assets of $500,000 or more
  • Annual personal giving of at least $5,000
  • Annual family giving of at least $10,000
Now that you are aware why you haven't been surveyed on this topic, let's take a look at what the young and wealthy value. Here's where small nonprofits have some opportunities. What jumped out to me was this concept:  
"These donors want to get in the trenches and want to be seen as more than just a checkbook. They want to know the organizations they’re supporting, the staff, board and constituents."
This led me to ask two questions: (1) Do we have opportunities for a donor or potential donor to meaningfully engage in our work? When they leave can they tell our story? (2) Do our donors know us?Recently I made a note to myself regarding our approach to e-community: "More personal. More of us. Are we their friend?" When we are planning our communication pieces we look for opportunities to add the faces of our staff, board, clients, and donors. Is there a person who could tell this story better than an anonymous editor? If so, make the abstract (in our case democratizing philanthropy) concrete by showing the faces of our philanthropists.
This is a time for building two-way relationships with donors so they see themselves (not just their dollars) as an essential part of your work. As personal values begin to eclipse family values in philanthropy, small nonprofits can focus on creating cost-effective, replicable opportunities to spend more time working alongside our donors. Instead of being more work, it can be a different way to approach your work. At every opportunity, let you donors get to know you - not just your work - in a more personal way.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Alyssa is Pinterested

Alyssa is Pinterested

We've added a new section to Tuesday Talk (our member e-newsletter) highlighting news, resources, and items of interest in the nonprofit sector. This section is curated by Alyssa and optional to read but we hope you'll find a few things that make you think, make you laugh, and make you look forward to (and always open and read) Tuesday Talk! If you come across articles you'd like to share, send them to media@cshares.org.

Social Media - Pinterest and Tumblr Review
I am always curious about social media and try to think creatively about the tools Community Shares can use to connect with our friends and allies. Those of you who have been to our training, "Social Media in 10 Minutes a Day", know we useFacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and YouTube at Community Shares of Colorado. Generally, I recommend you concentrate on doing one thing well - Facebook - rather than become overwhelmed with a handful of social media tools. However, people often ask me about whether they should take the time to learn about and use other tools so here is my quick take on Pinterest and Tumblr.

I have a personal Pinterest account I use, well, next to never.  Pinterest is an online scrapbook of your favorite images from the web. It works great for people who work in industries with a strong visual component - fashion, cooking, architecture, design, DIY, etc.  For those of us who don't make things look good for a living, Pinterest may seem superfluous. (Much like the word, "superfluous".) If your nonprofit addresses issues that are often highlighted with strong images, you can create a compelling presence on Pinterest.  (Arts, Environment, Animal Welfare, etc.)  Here are some examples of nonprofits using Pinterest to educate followers and drive people back to their site:

I had a hard time thinking of something to write besides, "Don't use Tumbler." Let's put it this way, I have 678 very, very, very close friends on Facebook - many of whom work in nonprofit organizations - and two of them have Tumblr accounts. If you have a super blogger on staff who can churn out content, here is an article from The Nonprofit Times with some information about using the site to connect with donors:

Help us focus our social media outreach by completing a poll designed to find out where friends of Community Shares spend their time online.  We'll share our results in the next Tuesday Talk.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Asking Why

We recently came across this video on TED from Simon Sinek about the communication habits of extremely influential leaders. It applies wonderfully to nonprofits wishing to drive more action for their mission and make a bigger impact on their communities. His video has received more than 2 million views making it one of the most viewed TED talks. I urge you to watch it and connect the dots back to your organization.

To begin, Simon asks what commonalities are shared by history's greatest innovators, leaders, and organizations. What he finds will shock you! He proposes that the habits of everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Apple, are patterned oppositely from how most people think, act, and communicate.

He boldly codifies his finding it into a simple visual model called
"The Golden Circle." This simple model which is illustrated in the video centers around asking the question, "why?"

Simon proposes that typical organizations market what they do and how they do it but few know why they do it, and even fewer actively communicate why they do it.

Simon proposes that messaging becomes truly effective when the model turns from "outside in" to "inside out," saying succinctly,
"People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."

Community Shares faces this question every day: Do we explain rationally what we do, or do we show our community
why we are unique and uniquely needed in Colorado?

In today's modern communications landscape,
"The goal isn't to do business with everyone who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe."

Social Media is especially attuned to this observation. The sheer volume of information makes it unrealistic to find and establish active relationships without demonstrating your beliefs. It is far better to use social media to communicate with those who agree with you already, and who are ready to accept you as a complement to themselves.

"If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe."

As the giving season approaches for nonprofits in Colorado I hope you'll find added value in demonstrating effectively why you are Unique and Uniquely Needed.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.

Jonathan Franzen transformed his commencement speech at Kenyon College into an Op-Ed piece for the NYT.  Expect my thoughts on the piece next week. (AK)

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.

Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.

Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger — would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.
Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.
Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?
Jonathan Franzen is the author, most recently, of “Freedom.” This essay is adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College.