hipster generosity

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I have loved my two years as a trustee of the Melbourne Chapter of the Awesome Foundation. The Awesome Foundation is based on a simple but effective model; 10 people put in $100 each month. We then meet (over dinner) to debate and decide which of the applicants (typically 20-30 for Melbourne, who apply online via the global Awesome Foundation portal) will receive the $1000, no strings attached grant for that month.

Firstly, and most importantly, it has been wonderful to have offered some assistance to awesome people setting out to do awesome things. But for me, being part of the Awesome Foundation has been more than an outlet for giving.

Over the years, Derek and I have allocated 5% of our operating profit before dividends and tax etc to what we have called our Make the World Better Fund. We have funded projects too numerous to mention here, including a scholarship for the university residential college we both attended to support others who think similarly – called the Ergo Make the World Better Scholarship. But the Awesome Foundation is giving in a different way.

Although collective giving is not a new thing, the internet has created a step change in connectivity between giver and receiver. It’s a great thing. Generalisations are dangerous, but I can safely characterise Awesome Foundation Trustees as smart and generous hipsters.  (Although some old farts such as yours truly are made to feel welcome.) I have loved the passion, energy and simplicity of the forum. This cohort of funders are recruited to the giving cause, not just because of the project, but because of the medium. It is agile and social and is on the digital platforms through which they communicate. I am a huge fan.

However, based on my involvement in funding and giving for a few decades now, in my opinion, there are some aspects of the hipster giving trend that have ushered in challenges for civil society. Of course it is true that traditional, larger NFPs must change with the times. But sustainable funding and the backbone revenue of many outstanding organisations come from donor loyalty expressed through long term giving commitments. These days the proliferation of organisations vying for our dollars and the overlay of crowd funding mechanisms that encourage ad hoc giving mean the competition for donations is spreading the money more thinly. Established organisations still rely on regular support. We would be hassled less on CBD street corners by backpacker fundraisers for large organisations if those same organisations could rely on recurring, loyal support from those that believe in their cause.

I have a suspicion that crowd funding platforms such as Pozible (the founder of which incidentally has taken over my spot on the Melb Awesome Foundation) have likely increased the number of people who are giving to interesting and innovative start up projects. But I think the challenge is to translate that new pool of funds into supporting those organisations that are in later stages of their contribution.

What do you think? How do you decide what to give to, and what mechanisms are working for you?

(To the fabulous Leslie and the Melbourne crew, ‘thanks a thousand’.)

‘Why not?’ lifestyle

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There is so much beauty and goodness in the world to be experienced. But our choices and attitudes rob us of opportunities to participate fully in life; we get stuck in ruts of our own making.

It’s one thing to live with carefree abandon and adventure when you are single and young. But we have four kids, a mortgage and a picket fence. So how did we break out of the urban professional rut without opting out completely? Everyone has heard the proverbial wisdom about people on their deathbeds not wishing they’d spent more time at work. But not everyone makes decisions to ensure they get to the end with no regrets. We’re giving it a go.

For us, living well and fully is not about hedonism or an addiction to experience. We have found that deep satisfaction comes from harmonising, and integrating into normal living, three things: pleasure, goodness and meaning. Pleasure celebrates the beauty of the physical world, what we see, hear, touch, feel and smell. Goodness has two parts; commitments firstly to wholesome and ethical living and secondly to lifelong learning, becoming a better person.

However, the deepest satisfaction comes when we give and make meaningful contributions to the welfare of others. Pleasure and goodness alone are insufficient for the highest, most exhilarating form of living … meaning generated through service is fundamental. Most socially intelligent people realize this eventually, but many people pursue pleasure and goodness for decades before stumbling on the paradox that ‘giving back’ rarely happens if we wait until we think we can afford it.

Our human inclinations toward pleasure, goodness and meaning are strong, but the often self-imposed obstacles can be substantial. Welcome to a journey, where our response to these inclinations is a simple question, ‘why not’?

Some background

  • Maria’s same-age cousin Darryn was the archetypal Aussie male; friendly, adventurous and a bit maverick.  At age 40 he got motor neuron disease. We attended his funeral in June 2010 after a tragic and heart wrenching physical decline. Maria knew it could just as easily have been her.
  • Our daughter Heidi, and her long time friend Glenn were destined to be together. Heidi was deeply happy as they set themselves toward a long relationship. Then on a fateful day in September 2010, Heidi received the call that changed our family forever. The skydiving plane carrying Glenn and 8 others crashed soon after take-off on New Zealand’s Fox Glacier. There were no survivors. For the first time we knew in our bones that sometimes things don’t work out OK.
  • My parents did their best to protect my fair skin from the sun during my childhood. But in Australia in the 70’s sunburn was part of every summer. Three cancers including two malignant melanomas later, I have a constant sense of this dark, secretive poison playing hide and seek in my body. Not to find it will be fatal.

Live with no regrets. Live every month as if it was our last in this season. Savour the moment.

  • It has helped us that we lived for many years on a very low and variable income. My job in the NFP sector and our decision that Maria remain at home when the children were young meant we raised our family hand to mouth. But we were happy and lacked nothing that mattered. That experience means that we have never taken money for granted. We have enjoyed a more conventional income in recent years but know we could forfeit it and live on much less if we chose to or had to. We gratefully take nothing for granted.

It’s not about money. Practise contentment not envy. Pursue dreams and passions

  • Like hundreds of thousands of others, we fantasised about travelling around Australia in a caravan. But that wasn’t enough. Because if you press pause on ‘real life’, even for twelve months, you still have to go back. So we thought about how to integrate what we wanted to experience into our regular living. We did buy a caravan, but instead of disappearing for one year, we’ve lived in it for three months every year, usually in three-five week blocks. It was one of the best decisions we’ve made.
  • Instead of waiting to retire near the coast, we left our home of 20 years in inner city Melbourne and moved to our fantasy location on the Sunshine Coast. This meant leaving our three adult children in Melbourne and relocating our 14 year old daughter into a brand new life. It means an insane travel schedule for me, working either in Port Moresby or Melbourne during the week, and home for three or four day weekends. I have a car in Andrew’s Airport Parking every day; either in Brisbane or Melbourne. Insane, costly and fabulous.

There are always options, we are not stuck. Choices have associated consequences, so either embrace the consequences and get on with it, or be content with the status quo.

(Have also added this as a static page.)

Macropolis?? The corporation’s next big leap

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Company Director is not the most inspiring of my regular reads, but this months magazine has a cracker article. In The corporation’s next big leap, (sorry, you probably won’t be able to view this – read below instead) John Green explores the scenario of a cashed up corporation buying / bailing out a struggling economy, thereby giving it all the immunity and operational freedom it wants in a globalised world.

He sites the example of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’ partially successful attempt to control Monaco back in the 50s. Green’s case study conclusion is that he didn’t go far enough to achieve his desired outcomes as he left the legislation in the hands of the royal family who eventually diluted his power.

Of course the stimulus for the thought is Apple’s current massive cash pile. A year ago it was $100 billion, now reportedly up to $137 billion. Not that it’s likely, but Green speculates on a Greek buyout. Macropolis! As Green says, ‘Apple may not want to do this but others might’.

Brilliant if scary.

The corporation’s next big leap? – Australian Institute of Company Directors

switching emotional states

A fair bit of the last 18 hours I’ve experienced some paralysis from feeling overwhelmed. I am one of those really lucky people who sleeps well … in fact it is running joke at home how little time it takes me to fall asleep. Not last night.

I lay awake into the wee hours. I thought about our children, thousands of kilometres away, all going through important phases in their lives … parents worry a lot. I thought about work. Our Melbourne based business is going through very significant transitions. I am a long way away and cannot be engaged as meaningfully as I would like and everything seems to take so long when you can’t influence it. I thought about my health. Two more moles will be coming off as a precautionary measure in the next month or so, and an ultrasound to check out a lump next week.

I got through a mornings work and then have been tossing and turning in 8A as the plane bumps through the high level cloud off Cape York. From feeling like the week was going well … I find myself in a bit of a spiral. What’s a bloke to do?

Well, here’s what I do. I tap into some thought processes that effectively switch my emotional state from negative to positive. For me that means plugging into sources of pleasure, goodness and meaning. I pick up the airline magazine that I’ve already ‘read’ twice and scan it for indicators or good design, acts of kindness and justice. I scour for places, things and people of genuine beauty. I mine it for stories of people who are not living ‘under the circumstances’ but have made choices to shape circumstances.

And I find some.

I feel the energy begin to seep back into my soul. I begin to count my blessings. I remind myself of what is within my control and what is not. I rekindle a problem solving posture rather than feeling buffeted. I start to regain some emotional strength.

I take in my privileged surroundings. I have chosen my travel bag, the items of clothing I am wearing and my travel accessories not simply for their functionality but because of their design. Did I mention – I really like good design. And I immerse my heart in memories and anticipation of those I love. I chose not to experience circumstances but to live. The things that kept me awake last night remain the same. But now they are opportunities for good living, rather than hurdles to passive comfort.

I glance out the window and the clouds have cleared.

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celebrating crackpot longtermism

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Last weeks Economist’s Schumpeter column addressed an issue close to me. The drive to maximise shareholder returns has been a theoretical and real obstacle to companies choosing to ‘be, and do, good.’ The argument is that owners have a right for the company to be managed with their interests front and centre.

The column cites studies published in a new book called Firm Commitment by Colin Mayer which argues that the overstatement of the ‘boosting shareholder gains function’ misunderstands the nature of the firm. In an analysis of possible new ways of operating, his preferred approach (rather than increasing CSR efforts) is reportedly to instil longer term thinking in governance by mechanisms such as constituting ‘trust companies’ where Boards are obliged to manage the company affairs with a long term view. Indeed. But that long-term thinking needs to be informed by an overall purpose, and that overall purpose is most meaningful when associated with a long term, public good aspiration.

I was struck by how little long term planning we do when listening recently to Radio National’s 24/02/2013 Future Tense podcast in which Anthony Fennell interviewed someone who is part of a hundred year project (yep you read right) to explore neighbouring solar systems. Now there is a fine line between being a true visionary and a crackpot. It reminded me of Aubrey de Grey’s TED talk on how close we might to human beings living to 1000 years. The point is that some people seem to have the capacity to imagine a different world, rather than one that simply extends the trajectory of what we currently experience in incremental steps. These people operate on the margins of society. We need to listen to them, even if with a critical posture. They might well be ahead of their time, rather than simply out of step. Think Galileo.

Makes my aspirations feel pretty puny.

the world beyond our radar

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A few things in the last 12 hours have reminded me how little I know, or at least how what I know is mediated by the media I chose to utilize / consume.

1. This morning, in the ‘boarding-to-seatbelt-light-off period’, I read last week’s Economist feature on Africa. Fascinating. I had no real appreciation of the development progress that has occurred on the poorest continent. My work with various international development agencies has not really helped, as most discussions I’ve had tend to relate to ongoing need rather than progress. My stereotypical image of Africa continues to be informed by last centuries headlines: famine and dictators. Yes, war and hunger are a long way from being banished but I was struck by the hope expressed in the correspondent’s report after having travelled 25,000kms by surface transport around the continent.

2. The trigger for this post: we just flew over Gladstone. We urbanites know there is a mining boom happening. But from the vantage point of an inner city café it is a long way away. The future of the real Australia is defined by left leaning hipsters. Then you see 40+ freighters anchored off the port and you begin to wonder. The regulars in the airport lounges in QLD are not suits of the south, but the boots and safety jackets of the FIFOs. You can know it in your head but even a sniff of the reality is confronting.

3. And then on the ABC News last night I see a project I am closer to, but still reminds me of how small my world is. The Boardroom where I spend much of my time in PNG (with some of my work in the background) is the backdrop for an interview with a researcher who has just conducted exploration along the Hindenburg Wall. This is an amazing landscape which includes 50kms of vertical cliff face up to 1km high, deep in Western PNG. It reportedly has eight times the bio diversity of the already incredibly diverse PNG wilderness. Giants rats and mini wallabies are among new species discovered, alongside plants and the largest butterflies in the world. Exotic is an understatement.

I think about this and it reminds me how much we stunt our thinking because we consume ideas with which we already agree, or we diet on knowledge that simply extends rather than challenges. It’s a natural thing and ‘expertise’ depends on it, but there is no excuse in this information age for not expanding the reach of what we appreciate about the world; whether that is the stories associated with others (Africa), the corners of the economy that are pretty much out of sight (where are all those ships going?) or the natural world in all its wonder and beauty (The Hindenburg Wall).

We have finite time to soak in the wonderful world in which we live. Let’s live expansive lives that continually extend the domains of our experience.

regrouping

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It was a regrouping weekend for me. Time for reflection has been scarce this year and I have missed it. I had expected my travel routine would have offered me more opportunities for thinking and writing than it has. Instead the tray table has become another desk, and I scramble to get things knocked off my do list before the seat belt sign illuminates for landing.

Stuff happens like that doesn’t it? Our expectations don’t eventuate. The trick is figuring out how long to allow the patterns to develop before we reset. 2013 is about a new experiment in work and life. The downside of commuting to work by plane every week is offset by long weekends at home at one of our favourite stretches of Australian coast.

The honeymoon period for me has been characterised by adrenaline charged workdays, surviving on less sleep in order to keep the various balls in the air. Those balls involve progressing work for clients, keeping connected with our Melbourne based family when there, helping think through and manage significant change in our business, a routine of medical appointments and regular exercise.

The wettest February in 10 years has literally put a damper on the weekends. That hasn’t bothered us until more recently, when like other QLDers we’ve begun to tire of the rain and south easterlies.

So this last weekend has punctuated that. Some sun in the outlook has helped. A reassessment of expectation re writing projects has begun to alleviate some frustration. I am re-energised for the next season.