What is Our End of the Deal?

Each New Year brings a great chance for us to think about clean slates and new beginnings, but I am not convinced that we place our expectations properly to assume that all of our hopes for change should be placed here. This semester, we will be taking a look at some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities that are in need of some of the fresh perspective that individuals traditionally reserve for New Year’s Day in the column entitled: Our end of the deal. I was inspired to use this title after considering Bill Cosby’s pound cake speech where he said that some individuals in society “are not holding up their end” of the deal. The speech while thought provoking on a number of levels, most notably made me consider how any of us comes to think about our end of the deal, and what impact that has on outcomes in business, life, and otherwise.

Today I want to share with you some of my thoughts about “my end of the deal.”

Perspective is helpful because it allows us to see whether we held up our end of the deal and it provides some sort of personal accountability in our lives. When I think about any number of deals that I have worked on in the past I am reminded that much of my time was spent focusing on whether or not other parties would in fact hold up their end of the deal, seldom did I apply the same rigor to considering my own responsibility beyond the work I put into coming to a decision about whether or not to deploy capital, be it the firm’s money, my time, my talent, or even my money.

One example that brings this home for most of us is the decision about whether or not to give money to panhandlers. On any number of occasions I have felt moved to give money to someone panhandling in the square, only to see them week after week in the same place. Somehow seeing them again and again reminds me that I did not have a meaningful impact beyond helping that individual believe that he/she has a sustainable business model for panhandling at a given location. Notwithstanding the economic and moral arguments about giving money to charities versus enabling behaviors like panhandling, there is something striking about the accountability of seeing your best aims fall short of your target, as is in this example.

To be clear my best hope for my small financial contribution was that it might help that individual get by for another day, but in practical terms I haven’t done anything to enable this person to “learn how to fish” in proverbial terms. Worse still the bitter truth is that even if I taught him how to fish, the real question would be, “where could she/he find a place that would allow him to fish today?” So in turn my response is and continues to be one where I give spare change with no real anticipation of upside that this individual’s stars might change or that I along with other bystanders might be more than an annuity to that individual.

I have heard it said on any number of occasions by fundraising officers at 501c3s that patrons should, “give until it hurts.” Some even go beyond that saying to those with tighter and deeper pockets to, “give until it starts to feel good.” What I struggle with is the feeling in which my sense of charity is replaced by one of obligation like that of a chore. There are some people who appreciate these sorts of appeals because they foster a competitive environment where the organizations with the best ability to address a social good are able to do so while we can go on living our lives doing the things we do best, some of this logic was articulated by Warren Buffet in making his gift to the Gates Foundation. Fortunately for me Warren Buffet did not stop there in his logic, his contribution of financial capital, he saw his contribution in terms of an investment requiring his attention (financially and otherwise). As I understand it he structured a deal, which the Gates Foundation embraced, that required his direct governance involvement, both for accountability and input purposes.

From a charitable perspective this is not always welcomed.what if the reality in many cases was that charitable interests preferred an unspoken gentleman’s agreement: one where we cut a check in exchange for a clear conscience that we did something, instead of having us mettle in their affairs. What if the reality in many cases was that we in fact did not want accountability of others getting too close to us and truly asking why we haven’t required more of ourselves?

In fairness some of the desire for distance is related to consumer centric nature of living in the 21st century. For instance, now instead of trying to get Bostonians to say hello and smile during the cold winter months for naught, I plug my earphones into my iPod and listen to my favorite playlist, drowning out smug frowns and the noise as I run errands. People in the same room are now accustomed to instant messages and email as opposed to chatting it up in person to person and what’s more each of us feels a little more in control as a result. As we have come to know more control and autonomy in our lives we also have to know that it is accompanied by less external accountability. Most of the time we are able to rationalize our shortcomings away not just by canceling out the noise but often with little effort we can we look and see what everyone else does in their lives and take comfort in our actions and inaction. This light transparency is meaningless in a community without accountability, in such a place standards matter little and people’s behavior tacitly collude for the worse.

Accountability to hold up our end of the deal is tough to come by. Not because there is a dearth of people who have insight and feedback to share with us. Rather the challenge is that few people desire the reciprocity that might result in providing accountability. For my part I feel especially fortunate that a friend of mine, several years my senior, has no problems providing the sort of accountability I have been talking about, I have even gone as far as giving him the moniker of: The “No” Man. The “No” Man does two very important things with respect to accountability, the first is to let me know when I’m in no man’s land and his second and more important duty is to answer “No” when I think I have done my part, or when I am about to settle, or even when I think I have it all figured out. I don’t expect that this person has all the right answers but what I find is a friend whom after careful analysis of my potential continues to expect the best and more from me. To be clear this is not the same as someone displacing the momentum and good intentions that you have in life, but rather it is someone who reminds you that you have enough fuel to make it beyond the moon and back when you prefer to rest in orbit around the Earth. For my part, the “No” man puts the example of the panhandler in perspective but he does not allow me to forget that tomorrow, and not simply next year, is another chance to get it right.

I am of the belief that in some way we need each other more than we know. Even when it comes to financial investments, good advice on acceptable terms seems to be in short supply, as the lawyers, bankers, even the accountants have their own interests which tint their perspectives. Somehow though, when it comes to investing in community, if we can all start off focusing on holding up our end of the deal, in return from each other we will find understanding and a path something of worth being a part.