I’m smitten with online reviews. Nearly daily, I use reviews to pick lunch spots in new neighborhoods and to decide between two hike options. I love knowing what people think, even when it hurts. Like the time a reader shared that Mission Drift could be improved if it was shortened to a five-page article. I also have a growing affection for authoring my own reviews.
Some of these reviews are borne out of righteous indignation. For instance, when an overhyped donut shop proved to be just that. Or when a restaurant treated my son like a mosquito at a summer picnic. I didn’t hold back on that one. Lest you think I’m Donnie Downer, I do have one rule for penning online reviews: I pair every negative review with a positive counterpart. Among many other favorites, I’ve publicly lauded our neighborhood pizza joint, one of my favorite books, and a great barbershopI frequented recently. The more reviews I have posted, the more fascinated I’ve grown with the way Yelp helps businesses to listen.
We recently hired a builder to replace the aging cedar fence in our backyard. After soliciting bids from three companies, we chose the contractor that best fit our project. Overall, we were satisfied with their work. There was just one exception, which I noted in my review:
[The contractor] was prompt in communication. They completed the project in their established timeframe. I received three bids for the work and their bid was competitive (and they stayed on budget). Unfortunately, they built the fence 7.5″ from our rear property line, which has caused us to lose 15 square feet of our backyard. For a small Denver property; that 15 square feet is significant! When I asked them why this happened, they acknowledged the crew made a mistake. I understand the fact that we all make mistakes, but they did not fix their mistake, nor did they offer any sort of solution for the mistake. I brought it up with them several times, but they did not do anything to rectify the problem. We’re satisfied with the final product, but disappointed to have lost some of our backyard, hence the 3-star rating.
Three days after I posted my review, the owner of the company wrote me an email:
I just read the review you gave us…I am sorry to leave you dissatisfied. I should have followed up a little more closely; I didn’t realize the fence placement was unacceptable to you. Would it be possible for us to correct this for you? I don’t want to cause any inconvenience but we strive to have our customers 100% satisfied. Let me know what you think and again I am sorry it wasn’t done correctly the first time!
He has scheduled a site visit this week to make the problem right. When he does, of course I’ll happily adjust our review. Good or bad, today we all have access to a virtual megaphone. This power existed before the Internet, of course. But never has it been as easy, nor as visible. This constant flow of feedback is why Jacqueline Novogratz articulates how the marketplace helps businesses to hear their customers.
“The market actually is a good listening device, Novogratz said. “I give you a pair of blue shoes as a gift. You say, “Thank you very much, they’re wonderful.” And then you throw them in the garbage as you leave. I ask you if you want to pay for it, you say, “Yes. No. I’d pay for it if they were brown or pink.” We’re having a conversation. So I see real power in the private sector as a way of listening, as a way of creating efficiencies.”
If grandma writes me a check for my birthday, I’m not going to call her and request she send the gift in cash instead—even if that would be my preference. We are rightfully less prone to provide feedback on gifts we receive. But this becomes a major challenge for nonprofits. It’s really difficult, actually, to hear from our customers, from the people we aim to help. This has weighty consequences. It’s one of the chief reasons that many charitable efforts fail to achieve their desired goals. It’s why one of our founder’s earliest initiatives to help the poor didn’t actually work.
Sometimes we’ve acted like just working in challenging places like Congo and Haiti is good enough. It’s not. Even though it’s difficult to provide loans and savings accounts in these countries, we believe the people we serve are partners, not charity cases. This is why HOPE is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to better listen to our clients, because we owe it to the people we serve to hear what they think of us. We aren’t always thrilled by what we learn, but even the harshest critiques offer valuable insights. Understanding is the first step toward improving. Nonprofits might lack Yelp reviews, but our customers still have opinions we need to hear.
Ted Williams and Jeffrey Hillman dominated headlines. In fact, I’d wager they were the two biggest homelessness stories of 2011 and 2012, respectively. TV, newspapers and radio stations across the country celebrated them. But now years beyond these headlines, only one of these two men has had a happy ending.
You remember Ted Williams. He’s the “man with the golden voice.” A passerby captured a stirring video of Williams on a street corner that instantly became Facebook share-candy. Williams’ rich baritone voice delighted millions of hearts. We learned he used to be a top-ranking DJ in Columbus before a crack cocaine addiction led him to a life on the streets for over seventeen years. Two days after his YouTube discovery, Williams was chatting it up with Matt Lauer on the Today Show and on his way to stardom.
A few months later, a different passerby captured an equally powerful moment. The picture showed New York City police officer, Larry Deprimo, fitting Jeffrey Hillman with a pair of brand new Sketchers winter boots. DePrimo saw Hillman hunched on the ground, cold and barefoot. He responded heroically and America latched on.
Police officer, Larry DePrimo, gives shoes to Jeffrey Hillman (source: NPR / NYPD)
The stories share much in common. At the time of their fame, both Williams and Hillman panhandled to make a living. Both dealt with serious substance abuse problems. Both were Army veterans. Both were born in New York City in 1957. And both made headlines because of an encounter with a Good Samaritan.
But today, their stories could not be more different. Shortly after Hillman’s barefoot meeting with the police officer, reporters discovered he was shoeless again. And Hillman wasn’t happy about his celebrity-status. “I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” he asked. “I want a piece of the pie.”
More recently, CBS News uncovered Hillman wasn’t actually homeless or shoeless. And the New York Post spotted him carrying a wad of cash after panhandling from the streets of Midtown Manhattan with a sign saying, “HOMELESS.” Hillman still goes shoeless—it’s better for panhandling business—despite owning thirty pairs of shoes.
Hillman’s fortunes have quickly changed. The police chief lamented the NYPD has many “people who try to scam us.” Recent articles and interrogating videos indicate today’s sentiment: Hillman has lost any public goodwill he once had. From an object of national compassion to a gutless con man in less than a year.
Today’s news about Ted Williams could not be more different. Last weekend his speaking tour took him to Wilmington, Ohio, where he shared inspirational stories from his memoir, A Golden Voice. His award-winning book is subtitled “How Faith, Hard Work, and Humility Brought Me from the Streets to Salvation.” In it, he shares his journey with God, his battles with addictions and his current work.
Ted Williams (source: Google Images)
When he’s not speaking about his book, Williams works for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and other companies doing audio voiceovers. Oh, and when he’s not working or sharing his inspiring story, he is volunteering at homeless shelters or donating money through his charitable foundation.
The sentimentality chasm between Hillman and Williams grows farther apart with each passing day. Hillman approaches near villain status, while Williams is a certifiable rags-to-riches success story. These are complex situations. And it’s easy to armchair quarterback the reasons why Williams made it and Hillman hasn’t. How should aspiring Good Samaritans respond?
We can start by mourning for the pain both of these men experienced, some past and some present. And, we can seek to elevate the gifts and skills of the vulnerable. We met Williams because of his abilities. We met Hillman because of his desperation. In it all, we can keep the “ultimate Samaritan’s” advice to love our neighbors boldly, while acting “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
My wife lived in Tanzania for a few months in college. While there, Alli visited a village recovering from decades of misguided missionaries. In the 70s and 80s, these missionaries introduced the American agenda for progress. They imported their vision for all areas of life—schooling, attire and even “proper food”—were outlined specifically in their blueprint.
Unfortunately, eradicating grubs from the diet topped their to-do list.
A staple in this village’s diet, the missionaries felt this primitive food source should not exist in sophisticated societies. What they didn’t realize was how vital those grubs were as a source of protein and nutrients. After disease, lethargy and malnutrition surged in the coming decades, nutrition experts discovered the problem—they lacked the protein and nutrients to survive. Years after ridding this Tanzanian village of grubs, they were reintroduced back into the diet.
Alli shared this story with me a few years ago. And I always viewed it as a classic example of When Helping Hurts. I always felt pity toward the people living in the Tanzanian village. I mourned how well-intended missionaries negatively affected the village. I became wary of replicating these missionaries. Of being the “hero” who actually made things worse.
But recently I realized: Though I was wary of becoming the missionary, I needed to also be wary of becoming the Tanzanian.
During Colorado summers, there is no better feeling than carving up a pristine singletrack mountain bike trail. Alli and I love to ride together and recently explored some new terrain on Colorado’s Western Slope, just outside of the town of Palisade.
When we arrived at the trailhead, we picked the easiest trail to start because it was our first ride of the season. As we rode up-and-down the rolling hills and pedaled up rock-faced ledges, I started noticing signs beside the trail. The signs provided tips and suggestions for how to mountain bike with excellence.
Colorado Mountain Bike Trail
Descending down a series of switchback turns, I saw a sign with clear instructions: Get off your seat. I stopped to read more. The sign described how riders poised on their feet, rather than sitting on the seat, are better prepared to handle the bumps and swales. As I descended, I put the advice to work and rose from my seated position into a standing position.
Without question, I immediately adjusted to the suggested pose. The sign me to do so, after all.
But as I reflected on my sign-obedience, I began to wonder: Who put these signs here? Is the advice directed toward professional mountain bike racers or amateurs like me? Is there actual science backing up these recommendations? Did some random neighbor kid pound these signs in the ground?
In this case, the sign’s advice was universal and true. But I’ve noticed in my own work, I quickly defer to experts or leading institutions because of their credentials alone. The Harvard Business Review becomes law. It’s as if the experts and consultants always voicethe right suggestions. I stand in a ready position if their signs say I should.
I remember meeting with an experienced fundraiser a few years ago. In short, he recommended I “put a number” on everyone I met. From his storied background, he built a system of ranking people by the size of the donation they could make. And for a season, I believed it. He was the expert. I deferred to his academic credentials and industry notoriety without regard for what was right. I ignored the itchiness I felt when he coached me to put charitable bounties on people.
Without question, following slimy fundraising experts is a much different issue than the Tanzanians experiencing malnutrition from abandoning grubs. But in both cases, the “expert” was wrong. We need to give and listen to advice gently, trusting no authority as right, apart from the One who always is. And sometimes that will mean we keep eating grubs, even when the experts say we shouldn’t.
Timothy Kayera spoke with been-there-done-that confidence. He grew stronger with each word, pulling me closer with the fire of his conviction. And then he summarized everything I believe about charity. In four words.
I used to work with one of those organizations that gave stuff away to everyone. We’d give away animals, clothing and clean water. All for free. I remember when we’d give goats to people, I would get phone calls and they’d say, “Timothy, your goat is dead.”
Your goat is dead. I’ve tried to articulate this idea dozens of times over the years, but never this potently. In four words, the caller said:
It was never his goat in the first place,
It was inconsequential it died, and
It was Timothy’s job to replace it.
Kayera is a star in Rwanda’s promising cast of young leaders. He directs HOPE’s efforts in a region of Rwanda and he emphasized the difference of his new job. His work now creates dignity, not dependency. Partnership, not pity. Timothy joins a chorus of Rwandans in this song, from the president of the country to “Rwanda’s Desmond Tutu.”
[The poor] are as capable, as competent, as gifted, and as talented as anyone else…In society, you must create opportunities to help people develop their capacity and talents. – Paul Kagame
We need to move from aid to production, from existing to living. It’s high time we stop telling our people they can’t do it. They can, yes. And we shall do it. – Bishop John Ruchyahana
Timothy, President Kagame and Bishop Ruchyahana share this opinion: Traditional charity erodes the nature of people and the fabric of society. When giveaways permeate, they communicate a clear message: What you lack, I provide. Where you are weak, I am strong. When you can’t, I can.
It’s a bad message, preventing people from hearing the better message from their Creator: I made you to make. I designed you to design. You are blessed to bless others. When charity runs its course—as it has in many places in Rwanda, Haiti and elsewhere—it lures the poor with handouts and traps them on unneeded life support.
But that’s why Timothy got out of that business. He saw its destructive path and cut the cord before it strangled. Today he anchors his work on who people are created to be and what we are designed to do. He doesn’t lure with goodies. Instead, he demands hard work from those he serves. People like Rachel.
I saw the future of Rwanda in her. Rachel showed me the house she built and the 16 pigs she purchased over the past two years. She showed me the litters of piglets she’s bred and the piles of fertilizer she sells. But Rachel isn’t filling her barns for herself. I asked her what her dreams are and she said, “The greatest joy of these pigs is that I am now able to share with my church and with others.”
Rachel didn’t beg for cash or stoop in compliance. She stood tall as a confident merchant, wife and mother. She did not avert her gaze. Her eyes were strong and generous. Rachel wasn’t the product of charity. She simply knew who she was created to be.
It’s the time of year, as they say, when spring is in the air. Mower engines rattle off their winter slumber. The garden store feels like Macy’s at Christmastime. Gardeners plot their strategies. And spring acts like therapy for this office-bound professional. Seeding grass and spreading mulch enliven me, but ‘tis the grand oaks and aspiring saplings I love the most. Trees: The lions of the vegetative kingdom.
I can’t recollect when I discovered my inner-arborist. But, I quickly learned that planting a tree is not easy work, especially in Colorado’s clay soil. Some experts (or at least a few “old wives”) instruct us to stake our new trees into the ground, protecting them from strong winds and the dangerous world beyond the warm embrace of the nursery. But if you want a strong tree, you’re wise to ignore that advice, no matter the depth of your sympathies.
In her dissident research paper, The Myth of Staking, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott took on powerbrokers and entrenched tree stake interest groups, saying:
Tree staking is done with the best of intentions but without regard to long-term tree health. Rather than helping a tree develop root and trunk growth that allow it to stand independently, improper tree staking replaces a supportive trunk and root system. This artificial support causes the tree to put its resources into growing taller but not growing wider. When the stakes are removed (if they ever are), the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down.
While Chalker-Scott allows staking in some instances—namely for exceptionally top-heavy trees—she never permits it for longer than one growing season. Wait longer, and any short-term benefits will be awash in long-term issues because of the stunted root system. Fine Gardener, the moral authority on all flora matters, goes even farther and warns that, “Staking a tree…can do more harm than good.”
When the wind howls and the rain falls, the young tree’s roots react and push deeper into the soil. The winds make it stronger. In contrast, staked trees do not fully mature, despite their stability. What saplings need more than protection is the opportunity to grow. To stand on their own roots. Provide your tree that chance along with healthy doses of sunshine and water and watch it thrive.
If our Creator embedded the anatomy and ability in trees to flourish, certainly He has created all people with the innate capacity to do the same. It prompts us to examine how we stake versus how we water. With our kids, friends, needy neighbors and the poor around the world: Are we staking or watering? The costs are too high to avoid the question. Let’s call a stake a stake and get into the business of helping people grow as their Creator designed.