How to get the biggest bang for the buck when you donate to good causes: Effective altruism

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Bang for the buck? We like to donate money to good causes. It gives us a “warm and fuzzy” feeling when we do something that helps those less fortunate than ourselves. But we rarely pause to consider whether our contribution is truly beneficial. We mean well, but there is no guarantee that the outcomes will match our expectations.

Here are some examples of unintended consequences.

  •  Too much of a good thing: When natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are widely publicized, a large amount of money and resources can pour in. But, the state of affairs at the scene of the event may not be adequate enough to put these to good use. A lot of good intentions go to waste.
  • Selfish altruism: Many of us split our donations into small amounts and give them to many different organizations. We’re called “warm glow givers.” Small sums of money can often cost more in processing charges than the amount donated.

Enter, effective altruism

In the past few years, effective altruism has come to be seen as a new way to think about giving.

“. . .a philosophical and social movement that advocates using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” – Wikipedia

The profile of an effective altruist

Data, not emotion: Effective altruists use a data-driven approach to do good. They prefer to donate money or give their time to causes that have the largest impact. In a sense, it follows the ethical philosophy known as utilitarianism.

How can one go about becoming an effective altruist?

  • Choose a career in which you make the most income, not with the intention of living affluently but so that you can do more good.
  • Choose a modest lifestyle in which you can donate a portion of your income to the most effective charities without putting yourself through discomfort or wearing a hair shirt. Guilt should not be a driving force in the decision.
  • Spend time researching organisations. The key question is: “Is the organisation working on important issues and are they doing it with a frugal, cost-conscious approach?”
  • Disseminate the message through various channels, including conversation, public speaking, and social media.

How do you know where your donations will be most effective?

GiveWell, is a not-for-profit organisation that has been working since 2007 to answer this question. Their data and resources are available online to anyone at http://www.givewell.org.

Emotions get in the way of charitable giving

Utilitarianism is not practical for most of us; it offers no room for emotions. However, we are largely driven by emotion when we give to good causes. Here are some of the mechanisms that work at stopping us from giving.

  • One over many: People experience a more positive effect when helping a single identified individual than when helping many. We will consistently choose family and friends over strangers and citizens of our own country over those of other nations. People’s responses to the suffering of others do not scale in a linear fashion but diminish as the number of affected individuals increases, a phenomenon that has been referred to as ‘compassion fade’ or ‘psychophysical numbing’.
  • Does it really reach the needy? In many places, corruption and local politics suck away donations. The needy don’t get them. We are concerned that donations made to such places might actually be supporting and promoting corruption.
  • Evolution rules: In the past, when the rules of evolution held sway, three fundamental motives helped solve key challenges: parochialism, status, and conformity. All of them are barriers to sharing and giving. Society has evolved to the point where these factors no longer hold good in day-to-day lives. Yet, evolution is a hard thing to shake off and can continue to create psychological barriers to effective giving.

Our moral boundaries can be examined by sound reasoning. Effective altruism tries to look closely at the results of charitable acts to make sure that money is spent in the best way possible.

 

If you want to be a leader, you need this “X factor”​: Executive Presence

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The “X” factor: Executive presence distinguishes leaders from the crowd of people with mere talent or merit.

First named and described by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, EP is:

“… an amalgam of qualities that true leaders exude, a presence that telegraphs you’re in charge or deserve to be. Articulating those qualities isn’t easy, however.”

Success does not naturally follow talent and hard work. There are studies in support. You need to have extra qualities that are not easily acquired, and can even be hard to pin down. The most well known is Daniel Goleman’s description of Emotional Quotient (EQ).

3 Qualities: EP is a mix of 3 elements.

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1. Gravitas: confidence + poise under pressure + decisiveness. This is the defining characteristic of leaders and is easily the most important.

2. Communication skill: speaking skills + deep, close listening + ability to read an audience or a situation. A powerful vocabulary needs to be a part of the territory. There is a direct correlation between vocabulary size and rank on the corporate ladder. Leaders have a much more powerful arsenal of words than those lower in the hierarchy and know how to tailor them to the audience at hand.

3. Appearance: Although not as critical as the other two, it completes the overall effect. A scruffy, distracted appearance does not go down well.

In addition, there are 3 more elements that complete the picture.

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1. A calm demeanor: Tantrums and prima donna-like behaviour turn people off. You may be a genius and endowed with rare abilities, but you are unlikely to be a leader if you can’t keep a firm grip on your emotions.

2. Self-awareness: Leaders are aware of their own limitations. They are not afraid to ask for help when they are out of their depth. They delegate effectively.

3. Getting things done: They strive for and achieve completion in all of their tasks. They don’t leave situations hanging and unresolved.

Next time you come across someone who is “charismatic”, use this EP list to see how many of the boxes they check. Ask yourself how you can build it into your persona. Executive presence is not an inborn gift. It can be learned and implemented.


Pay it forward – be a mentor

Photo credit: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The Buddha constantly emphasised that the attainment of enlightenment was not the end of the spiritual journey but merely the beginning of a duty: the unremitting responsibility for providing counselling and solace to those in need of help for their prevailing predicaments (Dukkha).

In a professional context, and in a word: mentorship.

Paying it forward: Traditionally, we look at paying back as the way of acknowledging help and support given to us in times of need. There is a more effective alternative: paying it forward. In gratitude for what was received, we should consider helping others in need. The downstream benefits and multiplier effects are much greater. That’s what mentorship is all about.

“. . . a great mentor can provide a path to finding your own true answers.” Tina Turner quoting Miles Davis, the jazz legend.

Coaching differs significantly from mentoring. It is often short-term, well-structured, and designed to achieve specific, tangible outcomes. A coach is the least personal relationship option.

“Searching for a mentor is similar to searching for a spouse: you two need to share common values, concerns, experiences, communication style, and, of course, have time to invest into meaningful conversations with one another.” — [Anna Szabo, Turn Your Dreams And Wants Into Achievable SMART Goals!

An ideal mentor should be:

  • Accessible: there when needed.
  • Experienced: been there, done that.
  • Well connected: knows someone . . . who knows someone.
  • Tough but empathic: iron hand under a velvet glove.
  • Enthusiastic: yes, you can do it!
  • Charismatic: wow factor.

The scaffolding of good mentorship

  • Recognise what you desire from the relationship. It’s crucial to keep in mind that mentorship is a relationship. Instead of jumping right into business, the most effective mentorships are those in which the mentor and mentee take the time to get to know each other and grasp each other’s viewpoints.
  • Set expectations together from the start. How long do you want the mentoring to continue (but you may always extend it if you both believe it’s beneficial). Define critical objectives for your mentee to attain. Work together to build a general idea of how your meetings should go. Make certain they are focussed on a few essential problems.
  • Take a genuine interest in your mentee as a person. The cornerstone of good mentoring is empathic listening.
  • Develop a sense of trust. Trust takes years to develop, yet it can be shattered in an instant.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the mentee – inquire. Age, gender, colour, physical habitus, and appearance are seldom reliable indicators of what lurks underneath. Find out what makes the mentee tick by talking to them.
  • Share your experiences. It can provide you with a unique perspective on the challenges your mentee may be dealing with. You could have had a similar situation, so now is a wonderful opportunity to share what you went through and how you dealt with it.
  • Look for resources to help your mentee. This is where mentors can make a real difference. You’ll have insider knowledge of the area and access to resources that your mentee wouldn’t be able to obtain on their own. Link them to these resources.
  • Be aware of your limits. When your bandwidth is limited, admit your lack of expertise and recommend other sources or persons.

Anyone can be a mentor: The image of a mentor is often one of leaders, who have been sharpening their skills for years and are experts at what they do. However, that’s not quite true; you can be a mentor if you are enthusiastic and willing to share your experience with others!

Virtual mentorship

Post-COVID, remote work is now firmly entrenched as an alternative for providing professional services. Many individuals believe that physical closeness is necessary in developmental connections such as mentorship. This is wrong. However, mentorship is characterised more by the results achieved than by the medium by which it is carried out.

  • Plus: Virtual mentoring may be more egalitarian since visible status signals signifying organisational position and physical stature are reduced to a voice and a screen of equal size in video-based talks.
  • Plus: The limitations of shared space and location are also removed with virtual mentoring. Mentor/mentee schedules and locales are more flexible with online choices.
  • Minus: Because the whole spectrum of nonverbal signs and vocal subtlety may be lacking, it may take more work to create trust and rapport in the relationship. Virtual mentoring, like many other online partnerships, may suffer from email overload and screen weariness.

“I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters.” — Michelle Obama, Becoming


 

Want to be more empathic? Try listening with your eyes closed

This is how the Japanese listen to speakers. When someone addresses a group in Japan, the audience will shut their eyes and listen with their heads bowed. They are focusing on the Hara, an energy field that is centred around the navel of the abdomen. This response can be extremely disconcerting to outsiders who are invited to talk and are unaware of the practice.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese about the skill of listening with empathy.

Skills can be hard or soft. Hard skills can be made explicit and overt, taught and passed down hierarchies with relative ease. Apprenticeship remains the major route for acquiring hard skills.

In earlier times, you could thrive on your hard skills alone. You could be rude, gruff and inhospitable, but the world would beat a path to your product. Not so any more.

Soft skills are vital in an age where technology is usurping and executing physical tasks. Soft skills are tacit — much harder to teach and certify. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the quest to acquire them. Indeed, there are some that can’t be taught; empathy may be one such.

Humans are social animals. Except for the occasional hermit, we need contact with our fellow humans on a regular, sustained basis. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense: connected groups have a better chance of survival than solo artists. Many people, even though they have strong feelings about wanting to connect with others, have problems with social connection and understanding.

Communication skills head the list of useful social soft skills. This is the age of networks where persons who are most valued and respected — influencers — are those who are deemed to be good with people at all levels, not tied down by rigid hierarchies and social strata.

  • Listening skills are very important tools for being a good communicator. Empathy — the ability to feel another person’s emotions, particularly pain — is the cornerstone of good listening.
  • Humans have an impressive array of tools for expressing and perceiving emotions. Body language and facial expressions are two traditional outward manifestations that can be read by listeners. They can often convey more messages than words.
  • Nevertheless, the spoken word is the cornerstone of communication. The voice is a particularly powerful channel for expressing emotions. In addition to the linguistic and content elements of speech, there are “paralinguistic” vocal cues that may provide effective pointers to underlying feelings which impel the words. These include volume, pitch and cadence.

Empathic accuracy is a skill with which individuals can effectively judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others.

In 2017, Michael Kraus from the Yale University School of Management published a very intriguing piece of research. The study was carried out with 1772 participants. The central prediction tested in these studies was that voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy relative to communication across senses. In other words, shutting off sight could enhance empathic accuracy.

The data showed that voice-only communication elicited higher rates of empathic accuracy relative to vision-only and multisense communication, both while engaging in interactions and perceiving emotions in recorded interactions of strangers.

  • Voice-only communication is likely to enhance empathic accuracy by increasing focused attention on the linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues that accompany speech.

It seems as though the advice to listen with your mouth shut needs to be extended to the eyes as well!

Reference: Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. Michael W. Kraus, Yale University, School of Management, American Psychologist 2017, Vol. 72, No. 7, 644–654

In memoriam: Side Kick and the days of yore

Some time ago, I read about and started using a wiki with an intriguing name: “TiddlyWiki”. It’s a wiki and less; a wiki that went on a diet, shed large amounts of flab and emerged leaner and meaner. It’s a single html file that requires nothing special, no server, no geekspeak, works through your browser and does everything a wiki should. Jeremy Ruston (may his tribe increase), its creator, describes his brainchild as a non-linear, personal notebook. It has the austere simplicity of a Google opening page and, likewise, packs a punch. It grows on you and continues to amaze with its elegance. Explore it at TiddlyWiki.com.

This essay is not about TiddlyWiki but something that set me thinking in its wake. My first personal computer was bought after a lot of quick talking to my wife about how it would save my soul: an Apple II plus. The year was 1980. The box was all you got for a thousand plus dollars. I bought a small car the year before for about four thousand, so that should put things in perspective. No monitor; you hooked up to your TV set. No disk drive; if you wanted a 180 KB floppy drive, that would add another fifty per cent to the cost. Forget printers; a thermal-paper-based one would chalk up another 300 dollars. The software came on music cassettes that you played on your cassette player and plugged into the computer. A whopping 48 KB (K, not M, not G) of memory. I loved it.

This memoir is not about Apple II pluses either. Then came my first “PC” — loaded with 256 KB (yes, K, not M) of memory and a floppy drive that used 360 K floppies (yes, K again, not M). The machine roared along if you bought the double drive version. This way, you didn’t have to take out the floppy with the programme software and put in a data disk every time you needed to save files. The two-drive system allowed the programme and the data to cohabit the same box. If you were wealthy, you could ask for a 10 MB (yes M, not G) hard disk that had the heft of a Tom Clancy novel and crashed at least once a week. Reformatting hard disks and reinstalling operating systems and software was all in a day’s work.

This memoir is not about the travails of working in a frontier land where men were men and so on. No doubt, like the cowboys of yore who carried everything they owned and needed in their saddlebags, not their pick-up trucks and SUVs, we travelled light. 

This brings me to what this memoir is all about; software that made you gasp, made you feel like the guy on a horse seeing Marlboro country for the first time. Appropriate to the current metaphor, it was called “Side Kick”. I believe that there was a space between the words; this was in the prehistoric days before wiki words and camel case. Somehow, after installing and working with hundreds of packages, I cannot recall any that gave me the high that Side Kick did. Remember, we were in an age where windows were washed regularly, not minimized. To run a second programme, you had to shut down the one you were with and fire up the one to follow. Multitasking meant talking with the phone cradled between your head and shoulder, trying not to get choked by the cord while frying eggs. In this background, Side Kick was a stunner. The entire package was about 50 K in size (K, not M). It was memory-resident, which meant that it could perform the miracle of staying in the background while another programme was running; a “Ctrl-esc” combo would wake it up. It popped up on top of your open programme in a resizable window and did not take up the entire screen. It could do several things at once: a calendar, a word processor, and a small database, amongst other things. You could save files from it. You could copy, cut and paste — all for 50K.

Okay, “So what?” the generation X-ers are saying as they slaughter a horde of slime-eating mutants on their Play Station. Like stout Cortez on the peak of Galen, you just had to be there to get the feeling. It’s like standing in line for hours to see the first Star Wars episode in the seventies. All film-making technology that has followed does not do the same for me that my first exposure to R2D2 and the Force did. I can’t describe it, but those of you who were there would know what I am talking about. 

Well, Side Kick died, and I don’t think anyone even cared. I would mourn, now and then and like in life, the now and then became further and further apart.  And then, TiddlyWiki! In the words of my contemporary, Barry Manilow, it was time to get the feeling again. TW weighs in at about 200K, minuscule in today’s world of software bloat that considers 50 MB as slim and svelte. TW is Side Kick born again, as Zen-like in its stark simplicity and majesty, which is the real reason for this memoir.

PS: If you mourn Side Kick, you will also remember PFS:File, in my opinion, the best flat-file database manager ever. Using the current version of Access is like trying to roll a fallen elephant with a toothpick.

How to write a business narrative which will impress Bezos

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway

But then, we are not talking about writing like Hemingway or Nabokov or Alice Munro. You have come up with a project. You are sure it’s a winner. You work at a company like Amazon and to take it forward you have to first write about it in a 4-6 page narrative. This document will serve as the pivot for all discussions about the project, something that your colleagues and bosses can read with ease and grasp the ideas you are putting forth.

What are We Looking At?

First things first, we must be in tune with Jeff Bezos’ recommendation. “Writing a good 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page Powerpoint … the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.” Powerpoint presentations are banned at Amazon. Meetings, when needed, have to be structured around a pre-prepared, carefully thought out, flowing narrative.

Who, Me?

The prospect of writing a business narrative is daunting to most of us. We baulk at the act because we have never received training for it. Writing with clarity and flow is hard work. Even Hemingway viewed it with trepidation.

Yes, You

Most narratives, business or fiction, have a typical structure. Once we get familiar with this simple scaffolding, the process of writing becomes natural and effortless. Let’s look at a 4-step method of producing a business narrative that even Jeff will smile at.

Step 1: Where are We Now?

As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” What was it that provided the original impetus or spark for putting forward this proposal? Write about it in simple words. The starting point could be one or more of many things. Maybe it was:

  • Pain points: Write about whatever produced discomfort in your present situation: things that make you uncomfortable, wary, anxious, frightened or angry.
  • Dangers ahead: There may be lurking threats to the organisation which you feel need prompt and proper handling.
  • Opportunities: Maybe it’s about things that present a lucrative prospect and could be harnessed for the good of the company. Describe it.
  • Innovations: In a rapidly changing business world, it may be that you feel the present set up does not encourage new ideas. To survive, you sense that innovation has to be nurtured.
  • Competition: Today’s world is brutally competitive. You know that other groups are sniffing at your heels. We have to start moving faster and farther than them

The number of starting points are limitless but you will have a single, specific item. Identify it and write in detail about it.

Step2: Where are We Headed?

If you don’t know where you are going, one thing is certain: you won’t get there. Describe your goal and ambition. There are many frameworks for outlining this section. A popular one is the “SMART” mnemonic:

S = specific – be clear about what you want.

M = measurable – assess results by objective means.

A = assignable – allocate specific people for specific tasks.

R = realistic – stay within your ways and means — don’t over reach.

T = time bound – be hard nosed about deadlines.

Step3: The road map

We live in the age of Google maps. You wouldn’t stir out anywhere new without first getting a road map. Your narrative must talk of three things.

  • The various steps that need to be taken to get to the goal.
  • The time limit and deadlines for each step.
  • Obstacles that are likely to pop up en route and your plans for working around or over them. Anticipate road blocks.

Step 4: What will it Look Like when You are There?

“Are we there yet?” — the constant refrain of children on a road trip applies to your narrative as well. Don’t just go with gut feelings. Refer back to the stated goals and make sure that you have reached every one of them. Take a hard look.

  • Use objective methods of assessment.
  • List the benefits and joys of having reached your destination.
  • Pitch it against the list that started your journey.

Not Just for Business Narratives — be an Ace Speaker

Storytelling is a sure-fire way to capture attention. Anytime you need to make a presentation, convert it into a story and you will hold your audience during your talk. The framework that we just saw can be used to rephrase an idea into a narrative. With a little imagination, a boring sermon can be transformed into a tale of how the idea was born, its goals, the path to implementation and the view from the top. Like the ad says: “Just do it.”

Clever Tip

You don’t have to use the steps in the order listed. You can play around with it for dramatic effect. For instance, you could open with a vision of what the end looks like, shift to the reason for starting the journey, talk about the road and end with what your goals were. Play around with the four steps and see which order suits the spirit of the narrative

Come Back to Papa Hemingway

You don’t need a vast vocabulary or a smart turn of phrase to write well. Hemingway said this when putting down Faulkner: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Write from the heart. Focus on:

  • Simple language.
  • Short sentences.
  • Brief paragraphs — each one containing one idea, each paragraph flowing logically into the next.
  • Anticipating objections and addressing them ahead of time.
  • Redrafting your manuscript many times. Be a ruthless critic of your writing, logic and flow. Every word must have a reason to be there.

Writing well is the best way of thinking well. Which is why anything written is given far more value than spoken words. Penned sentences linger as a legacy of a human being, sometimes well beyond the life of the person who wrote them. To disseminate great ideas, you need to write captivating stories. 

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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