December 2008 Posts

Stuff is Not Salvation – reprint of Anna Quindlen’s Newsweek Post 12/22

What passes for the holiday season began before dawn the day after Thanksgiving, when a worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by a mob of bargain hunters. Afterward, there were reports that some people, mesmerized by cheap consumer electronics and discounted toys, kept shopping even after announcements to clear the store.

These are dark days in the United States: the cataclysmic stock-market declines, the industries edging up on bankruptcy, the home foreclosures and the waves of layoffs. But the prospect of an end to plenty has uncovered what may ultimately be a more pernicious problem, an addiction to consumption so out of control that it qualifies as a sickness. The suffocation of a store employee by a stampede of shoppers was horrifying, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.

Americans have been on an acquisition binge for decades. I suspect television advertising, which made me want a Chatty Cathy doll so much as a kid that when I saw her under the tree my head almost exploded. By contrast, my father will be happy to tell you about the excitement of getting an orange in his stocking during the Depression. The depression before this one.

A critical difference between then and now is credit. The orange had to be paid for. The rite of passage for a child when I was young was a solemn visit to the local bank, there to exchange birthday money for a savings passbook. Every once in a while, like magic, a bit of extra money would appear. Interest. Yippee.

The passbook was replaced by plastic, so that today Americans are overwhelmed by debt and the national savings rate is calculated, like an algebra equation, in negatives. By 2010 Americans will be a trillion dollars in the hole on credit-card debt alone.

But let’s look, not at the numbers, but the atmospherics. Appliances, toys, clothes, gadgets. Junk. There’s the sad truth. Wall Street executives may have made investments that lost their value, but, in a much smaller way, so did the rest of us. “I looked into my closet the other day and thought, why did I buy all this stuff?” one friend said recently. A person in the United States replaces a cell phone every 16 months, not because the cell phone is old, but because it is oldish. My mother used to complain that the Christmas toys were grubby and forgotten by Easter. (I didn’t even really like dolls, especially dolls who introduced themselves to you over and over again when you pulled the ring in their necks.) Now much of the country is made up of people with the acquisition habits of a 7-year-old, desire untethered from need, or the ability to pay. The result is a booming business in those free-standing storage facilities, where junk goes to linger in a persistent vegetative state, somewhere between eBay and the dump.

Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter: college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness, which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps will exceed the 30 million mark.

Hard times offer the opportunity to ask hard questions, and one of them is the one my friend asked, staring at sweaters and shoes: why did we buy all this stuff? Did anyone really need a flat-screen in the bedroom, or a designer handbag, or three cars? If the mall is our temple, then Marc Jacobs is God. There’s a scary thought.

The drumbeat that accompanied Black Friday this year was that the numbers had to redeem us, that if enough money was spent by shoppers it would indicate that things were not so bad after all. But what the economy required was at odds with a necessary epiphany. Because things are dire, many people have become hesitant to spend money on trifles. And in the process they began to realize that it’s all trifles.

Here I go, stating the obvious: stuff does not bring salvation. But if it’s so obvious, how come for so long people have not realized it? The happiest families I know aren’t the ones with the most square footage, living in one of those cavernous houses with enough garage space to start a homeless shelter. (There’s a holiday suggestion right there.) And of course they are not people who are in real want. Just because consumption is bankrupt doesn’t mean that poverty is ennobling.

But somewhere in between there is a family like one I know in rural Pennsylvania, raising bees for honey (and for the science, and the fun, of it), digging a pond out of the downhill flow of the stream, with three kids who somehow, incredibly, don’t spend six months of the year whining for the toy du jour. (The youngest once demurred when someone offered him another box on his birthday; “I already have a present,” he said.) The mother of the household says having less means her family appreciates possessions more. “I can give you a story about every item, really,” she says of what they own. In other words, what they have has meaning. And meaning, real meaning, is what we are always trying to possess. Ask people what they’d grab if their house were on fire, the way our national house is on fire right now. No one ever says it’s the tricked-up microwave they got at Wal-Mart.

Original post can be found here

What if Lao Tse was a blogger?

TaoThe blogosphere is sometimes a clogosphere of people trying sound smart, witty, or cutting-edge. But if you get a chance, I recommend you check out this really clever guy named Lao Tse. He never blogged, but he was great at cutting to the chase. Here are his tips on good governance, which seem appropriate for these days of “global economic meltdown.”

Lao Tse wrote:



“When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea. All streams run downward into it. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. Humility means trusting in the Tao, and thus never needing to be defensive.[61]

Shadow illusion

A great nation should be like great man. When he makes a mistake, he should realize it. Having realized it, he should admit it. Having admitted it, he should correct it. He should consider those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He should think of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.[61]



The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.[57]

When man interferes with God, the sky becomes filthy. The Earth becomes depleted. The equilibrium crumbles. Creatures become extinct.[39]



For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation. The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.[59] When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results. [58]



[Instead,] center your country on the way, and evil will have no power. Not that it isn’t here, but you’ll be able to step out of its way. Give evil nothing to oppose, and it will disappear by itself.[60]



If a nation is centered in this way, if it nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others, it will be a light to all nations of the world.[61]”

This treatise, excerpted from the Tao Te Ching, was written 2500 years ago. Words in italics are various translations for “the Tao.” In the illustration above, squares labeled A and B are actually the same shade of gray. The shadow causes your eyes to deceive you. This illusion wasn’t well known in Lao Tse’s day, but it seems to have a certain Zen to it.

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

It’s been a stressful couple of weeks at GlobalGiving.  The success of last year’s launch of biodegradable gift cards inspired us to expand and improve our offering this holiday season.  Part of the improvement was to outsource the fulfillment of the cards.  Believe me, if you had been in our office around December 12th 2007, and seen the late night card-fulfilling process, you would get what I’m talking about. So we did a very thorough RFP and selected what we thought was a cutting edge vendor.  But things have not gone all that smoothly.  We launched the new “platform” a month later than we had hoped.  (Let me just say for the record our lead developer, Kevin, was on schedule).

After an 11th hour trip to the midwest for a “Come to Yahweh” meeting, we launched the new designs & fulfillment process just before midnight Friday November 21st.  We saw orders flowing through the system within hours.  Sounds great, right?  Wrong. Due to some issues on the vendor’s side, no  cards shipped for the first 12 days.  It’s a long story, but the bottom line is that many GlobalGiving customers have waited WAY TOO LONG to get their cards.  We’ve been upset, nervous and doing whatever we can to get things “unstuck.”  And we think we now have.  But the folks who ordered cards between November 21st and December 1st had an experience sort of like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

So yesterday we decided to actively communicate with those buyers.  We sent them an email that, among other things, said, “we understand that you expected to receive your order in a timely manner, we apologize,” we told them when to expect the cards, and we sent them a free $10 gift card.  We expected a bunch of understandably frustrated or angry replies.  We braced ourselves.  We held our breath. But we’ve received exactly none.  Instead, we’ve received these:

  • Thank you for the update! I appreciate the $10 gc toward a donation of my choice, which I just redeemed.  I’ll look for the cards in the next couple of days.
  • I have no problem with the delay.  Obstacles are to be expected.
  • Thank you for notifying me about this problem and for your kind offer of the $10 gift card as a compensation for the inconvenience. I was happy to donate it in honor of my daughter.  Blessings to you for creating this wonderful website and service!
  • Thank you for the notification.  I do not need the cards before the 8th.  Save any expenses you can!
  • Glad I started early with this, so it is not a problem.  Thanks for the $10; it will be put to good use.
  • I’m in no rush for the giftcards, if you want to send them slow, that’s fine with me.
  • you guys rock!!!

We are still learning and growing but we have very high expectations for ourselves.  These responses let more steam out of the pressure cooker than all the yelling in the world.  Wow do we feel lucky to have the kind of community that responds this way.

As a postscript, today I came across Jeff Brooks” post over at Donor Power Blog: Treat Your Donors To Some Unexpected Kindness, in which he lists 10 Treats Customers Love from the Return Customers blog.  The ones that caught my eye were about showing your customers empathy and explaining the details.  Our marketing team didn’t read his blog before sending out the emails, it just what they thought was the right thing to do.  And our customers seem to have validated that.

Now, where are my damn cards?