My friend Josh Sommer, a junior at Duke University, is featured in a great article titled Patient Leads Fight for His Life in the Charlotte News & Observer. Josh has an inspiring life story. A couple years ago he was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare bone cancer with low survival rates. Instead of waiting around for scientists to make progress on a potential cure, Josh has jumped into the fray to try to save his own life. He and his mom launched the Chordoma Foundation to promote research of potential cures and galvanize the research community. He works 30 hours a week in Duke labs with professors who have agreed to study the problem.
A few weeks ago, Josh raised $4,200 over three days for his foundation on Facebook "Causes". By securing the most individual donations within a 24 hour period, he won Facebook’s $1k prize. About 1,300 people (mostly college students – like me) contributed small amounts of money to the cause. Talk about micro-philanthropy!
This is a fantastic testament to the power of social networks to organize friends from all over the world in a short period of time in support of a philanthropic cause. Josh told me after he raised the money that he’s learned some things about fundraising and Facebook: a) people will donate for their friends – the actual cause doesn’t really matter, b) it’s gotta be painless and convenient, c) the internet doesn’t inspire large donations, d) word spreads fast on Facebook…. All good lessons.
The internet has allowed young people to do things not possible even 10 years ago — start businesses, join ageless communities, raise money. Or, in the case of Josh, the opportunity to try to save his own life.
My favorite part about my college speaking tour in April was meeting hundreds of amazingly motivated students like Josh. At Duke, I spoke at a special program where a dozen students have dinner with an invited speaker, and I met Josh, Jeremy Welch, Breck Yuntis, and David Snider. All great guys who I’m sure will do big things in the coming years.
Caitlin Flanagan is one of the funniest, most penetrating writers on feminist issues. And she has range. See her on MySpace predators, or on the supposed oral sex epidemic on college campuses.
In the latest Atlantic ($) she rips into Hillary Clinton. Along the way she says Hillary has the "worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband."
Her point about the humorlessness and sanctimoniousness of idealists caught my eye. I consider myself optimistic but not idealistic.
College is full of idealistic 20 year-olds. Particularly the activist variety. You know, people who walk around with "Save Darfur" t-shirts, drinking "Fair Trade" coffee (what a joke), munching on organic nuts from Trader Joe’s.
One of the reasons I dislike stereotypical activist types is the holier-than-thou aura they project. Whether fighting for Darfur or racial equality here at home, the leaders of the local movements I’ve been exposed to take themselves (and their movements) way too seriously.
Barraging the audience with statistics, gruesome photos, or heart-wrenching stories is not enough, and may even be counterproductive. Expressing intense moral outrage and expecting others to feel similarly guilty automatically is naive. I remember a National Organization for Women assembly at my high school — everyone left feeling depressed about the oppression of women. But it didn’t move us to act or think hard about how to change anything.
With so many just causes competing for the average Joe’s attention, I would recommend that the social activist idealists of the world spend more time thinking through specific communication tactics, among them the implicit suggestion from Flanagan: loosen up.
The National Center for Women & Information Technology yesterday launched their Heroes project. The Heroes project is a series of magazine-style audio interviews highlighting women entrepreneurs in information technology careers, sponsored by the NCWIT Entrepreneurial Alliance. The series features weekly 15-minute interviews with approximately 20 women IT entrepreneurs chosen from among more than 100 nominations.
NCWIT is a fantastic organization devoted to studying and promoting the issue of women contributions to IT and entrepreneurship. When I worked in Colorado during Q1 I spent a bunch of time with CEO Lucy Sanders, interviewer Larry Nelson, and others to help get this project off the ground. The idea behind the Heroes project is to highlight the extraordinary work of some "heroes" in the industry with the hope that it inspires young women to pursue a career in the field.
Check out the early interview with Helen Greiner of iRobot. Good stuff. And there’s more to come.
If you have any feedback on the interviews or ideas for how we can get the word out about this new podcast series, send me a note.
Becker and Posner this week discuss charitable foundations and touch on a point I hadn’t thought much about which are sunset provisions to ensure a charity’s assets are disbursed within a certain time frame. Becker notes that Bill Gates has said that his endowment will be spent within 50 years of the death of the third of his three trustees. Posner explains why a perpetual charitable foundation is "irresponsible":
A perpetual charitable foundation, however, is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets (in both respects differing from universities), and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either. It is not even subject to benchmark competition—that is, evaluation by comparison with similar enterprises—except with regard to the percentage of its expenditures that go to administration (staff salaries and the like) rather than to donees. The puzzle for economics is why these foundations are not total scandals. The solution to the puzzle seems to me twofold: the foundations are controlled by trustees, whose prestige is invested in the success of the foundation; and foundations are constrained by law, as well as by the limited benchmark measure that I mentioned, to give away most of their income, and this limits the ability of staff to appropriate the foundation’s income for its personal benefit.
“If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” Warren Buffett has said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work.
If you have a rich friend who keeps talking about "all my hard work and all my money that I earned", go send them the above passage from Peter Singer’s NYT magazine cover article on why people should be giving much, much more to charity. As I’ve said before, luck and circumstances are vital.
In a somewhat related piece in the December Atlantic Monthly, the wonderful Clive Crook writes enthusiastically ($) about the British documentary Seven-Up which interviewed children at age seven and then every seven years after that to see how they grew up. The filmmaker’s thesis: "Give me a child at seven, and I will give you the man." After watching the privileged children prosper materially and the unprivileged children flounder but still make it to adulthood in one piece, Crook concludes:
Does privilege early in life make it easier to prosper as an adult? Yes. Do early setbacks spoil your chances? Of course they do. The children of rich parents tend to be rich; the children of poor parents do much less well. One cannot watch these films without wanting to lean hard against the unfairness of this world. Yet one sees, also, that satisfaction in life is not the same thing as material success. Though one emerges disinclined to mold these lives to theories, one comes away suspecting that happiness, contentment, and self-respect are character traits as much as they are fruits of success. Money matters, obviously, but so do whether you are crushed by disappointment or spurred by it, sociable or solitary, restless or settled, capable or incapable of intimacy, deserving or undeserving of trust. And loneliness, maybe, is worse than poverty.
Ideally, have lots of money and a large capacity for happiness. But if you had to choose just one, these films suggest which it should be.