Econtalk: Mauricio Miller on Poverty, Social Work, and the Alternative

This is a really interesting episode of Econtalk, and worth a listen.

Highlight 1: Accurate description of poor communities

A couple of things here really resonated with my experience of living and working in low-income communities in Jakarta:

  • Miller’s descriptions of the resourcefulness of people in poor communities – that many people in poor communities are hard working and resourceful and demonstrating impressive amounts of willpower and – in his word – ‘talent’ just to get by on low incomes.
  • The dynamism of poor communities, particularly in terms of people moving in and out of poverty – apparently backed up by statistics. According to Miller, although 15% of the U.S. population are ‘poor’ at any given time, the majority of those will move above the poverty line, to be replaced by other (temporarily) poor people – i.e. people who lost their job a month before the census and have no income, but will soon return to work. Miller says that only about 3% of the population are ‘long-term, generationally poor.’

Highlight 2: What happens when users pay for services

This section also really reflected my experience at the charity I work for, where a switch to a ‘user pays’ model of service (rather than a purely donation-based, ‘charitable’ model) made us more responsive to the needs of our users, and drove up the quality of what we do. Here’s Miller:

Mauricio Miller: …I wouldn’t bring my own family through [my own social services]; now I had money–

Russ Roberts: Why not?

Mauricio Miller: Because they were paternalistic. My mother hated that. She said, ‘The social workers are really nice, but they take away my pride.’ And certainly the racists would take away her pride, too. You know. And sexual harassers would take away her pride. But even the people who were trying to be really nice would take her pride away. And so, that was one of the issues. The other issue is that the programs that I had were sold–and the structures were to sell to get funding. Funders don’t really understand circumstances on the ground. But, they get certain interests. And so you have to shape your program based on what they kind of want in order to get the money. And that, then you are held accountable to those kind of standards. Where, I actually had started two businesses within my own non-profit, that, when you are running a business, you have to meet the customer demand. Not the investor demand. You have to really meet the customer demand. And so, somehow or other, when I wanted to adjust my programs, they were not responsive to my customers. And so, for me, my social service programs were too structured, too paternalistic. They did not recognize or meet that market demand. And now that I was middle income and had money, I would instead, when I had to help my nephew and nieces who struggled with drugs and all kinds of things, I would go to private sector services, because they would say, ‘Do you want us to send the advisor on the weekend, or the evenings?’ Or, ‘What’s convenient for you?’ and ‘Would you like this program?’ I was given choices. Because I had money. But people who were poor didn’t have those kind of choices. And so, why would I want to take my own family, that had struggled with everything that everybody else was struggling with what was out there in some of these neighborhoods: Why would I take them into a system that was so structured and was not responsive when I had money? So, money made a difference. And I realized that: No, I wouldn’t bring my own family.

Russ Roberts and Mauricio Miller – Econtalk

In the end, I wasn’t completely convinced with Miller’s model – or didn’t feel completely clear about what he was offering – but these bits were excellent – and true.

This sort of thing

Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Artemus Ward*

I came across this at the start of Aaron Dignan‘s Brave New Work**

It’s a fantastic line. It was written as a faux-disparaging remark that was exactly intended to show the sort of humour you could expect from the Ward/Browne.

What I love about it is that it’s true of almost everything, including (and perhaps especially) the kind of highbrow entertainment that Ward’s fictional reviewer would have thought was worth their attention: opera, ballet, public lectures… If you like that kind of thing, you’ll find it the sort of thing you like.

And if you don’t like this sort of thing that doesn’t mean it’s bad (though of course it might be bad) – it means it’s not for you.*** And that’s fine. It’s not for you, and your opinion isn’t really relevant – what matters is the opinion of the people who it’s for.

This is a liberating way of thinking about anything you make, anything you’re trying to build or sell… even about yourself.

*Variously attibuted to Ward (pen name of Charles Farrar Browne), Abraham Lincoln and others. Ward is the best bet – more here.

**A really interesting read – recommended – more to follow.

***Seth Godin has written a lot on this – see this post, this episode of Akimbo, Tribes and This is Marketing

The soft option

Your desire to be generous to others is a great motivator to excellence: if you’re serious about ensuring that the externalities of your project are consistently positive, you’re going to need to be doubly good at what you do.

You need emotional energy and time to spare to listen well, to be gracious under pressure, to be the kind of employer or customer that helps your team or partners to do their best work.

It takes discipline to do this kind of emotional labour day in, day out. You need to be clear about what you’re doing and how and why, plan for it, and be deliberate about doing it consistently. You need to find ways to articulate your values to people inside and outside your project.

You need to be hard-headed about being soft-hearted.

Courtesy and cold fusion

One yardstick of wealth is how much you give away. It’s easy to run out of time and money, but there are no hard limits to your supply of courtesy and consideration.

I’ve had several interactions with courteous, engaged service people this week, and they made a huge difference to a difficult week – I still feel glad about them. Being courteous – assuming the best, being polite, giving respect and space to people before you’re forced to concede ground or fight for it – is a wonderful form of generosity. It makes almost everything better, feels great, and almost always creates more energy than it costs.

It’s cold fusion.

Tom Peters on ‘People Stuff’

I’ve made a start on The Excellence Dividend and really like what Tom Peters has to say, and how he says it. Here he is in his inimitable ALL CAPS style:

WHILE I’VE BEEN ON THE EXCELLENCE DIVIDEND  BOOK TOUR–MOSTLY PODCASTS — I’VE BEEN ASKED OVER AND OVER TO EXPLAIN MY “OBSESSION” WITH THE “PEOPLE STUFF.”

I USUALLY ANSWER, SNIPPILY, “WELL WHAT THE HELL ELSE IS THERE?”

ORGANIZATIONS, NO MATTER HOW MUCH TECHNOLOGY THEY USE, ARE NO MORE AND NO LESS THAN ‘PEOPLE SERVING PEOPLE’.

AND AS A LEADER, YOUR JOB IS: SERVE THE PEOPLE WHO SERVE THE PEOPLE.

(ONE LAST THING: THE PEOPLE WE SERVE ARE OUR EMPLOYEES AND OUR CUSTOMERS AND OUR COMMUNITIES.)

Tom PetersExcellence Dividend Fundamentals Slideshow

As powerful as a smile

Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. It’s part of your story, something that you do organically when your business is aligned with your mission and values. Kept promises, free returns, obsession with the details, returned emails, clean tables, and attentive staff – all of this is your real marketing.

Real marketing creates a deeper impact, leaves a lasting impression, and is as powerful as a smile.

Bernadette Jiwa – The Fortune Cookie Principle

Why do people come to you for the thing you provide?
What do they get? Why do they want it? How does it make them feel?
What makes them come back?
Do they tell other people about you? What do they say?

What do your actions / words and tone of voice / website / way you dress / your office / commitment to doing things well say about who you are and what you’re doing? Do they say the same thing?
For a non-profit organisation, do you smile at your donors and your clients in the same way? (you should)
Are you an example of these things for your team? How do you articulate them to the team, to new members, to partners?

What if it was free?

What if your the thing you do could be free? If the cost of all your inputs dropped to nothing – what would you charge?

If someone down the street started giving it away – why would people still come to get yours?

The answer is probably, because they want to buy it from you. They like you, the way you do your thing, the story you tell about what you do – and the way these things make them feel.

They feel good about you because you’re: more reliable / cutting edge / traditional / safe / fun / surprising / caring / professional / energetic / calm and collected / place a higher value on X / more educative / a long-term solution / like them.

Better than free

In a world of abundant free – or nearly free – copies, what makes something worth paying for?

In The Inevitable Kevin Kelly suggests eight “generatives”: attributes of goods or services that add value:

  • Immediacy (I can have it now – before the crowd)
  • Personalisation (it’s special to me)
  • Interpretation (how to understand or use the free thing)
  • Authenticity and trust (it’s the real deal, not an imitation. Quality)
  • Accessibility and convenience (so that it’s easier to access the free thing any time)
  • Embodiment (e.g. the luxury of a physical book, or of doing something in person)
  • The feeling and status of paying for it (patronage)
  • Findability and curation (“a work has no value unless it’s seen”)

…these new eight generatives demand an understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse.

In short, the money in this networked economy does not follow the path of the copies. Rather it follows the path of attention, and attention has its own circuits.

Kevin Kelly – Better than Free

The acid test

If my potential…

customer / employer / client / donor / partner / supplier

knew what I know about my…

product / last job / service / organisation / attitude / manners

would they still…

buy it / hire me / use it / give / join me / want my business ?

Better still…

Would they be eager to do so?

Hat tip: SG

In their hands

Make something people can use.

Put it in their hands.

See what happens.

If they’re eager to pay – attention, time, money – you’re onto something.

Watch them. Listen to them. Tweak it. Make more of it. See what they think.

If they tell their friends – and if their friends tell their friends – then you’ve got it.

What change do you seek in the world? Who are the people you seek to serve?

You’ve got it when they’ve got it.

You’ll know you’ve got it when you meet someone for the first time, and the thing you made is already in their hands.

Team Performance (1)

I’ve just been listening to Richard Hackman on teams and team performance. His first lens for evaluating team performance is straight forward:

Delivering the goods

Did you get the job done? How well did you do it?

Who is the legitimate receiver, user, reviewer of this performance and what to they think of it? Did you serve the client first?

At a non-profit leader you might have several ‘customers’: the people you serve, donors, the team itself. If you can’t keep everyone happy, where do your priorities lie?

I listened to Andy Kaufman interviewing Richard Hackman on the People and Projects Podcast.