Friday, December 15, 2017

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 47: Jean-Louis Sarbib

"Dennis, why don't you come work with me?"

It was the summer of 1987, and a dynamic young division chief in the World Bank's Africa region was offering me an exciting opportunity to work with him.

It took me 26 years to say yes.  In the 1980s, I needed to work in Asia for personal reasons.  Our work intersected a bit over the years, but it was not until 2013 that the stars aligned.

After I had published this paper on feedback loops at the Center for Global Development, I got a message from Jean-Louis asking me to come to a lunch discussion at the OpenGovHub.  He and his colleagues at the Development Gateway invited along a number of colleagues from other organizations at the Hub, and we began to have weekly lunches to discuss how better feedback loops might improve aid, governance, and philanthropy.

One thing led to another - a long story with a lots of heroes worthy of separate posts - and Feedback Labs was born in 2014.  The typical path would be to set up a separate organization to house the Labs, but I wanted build on the momentum of those lunches without having to establish the infrastructure for a new entity.

So I asked Jean-Louis if the Development Gateway would house the Labs for a while until we could get our feet under us.  He replied, "Of course."

For three years, Feedback Labs was hosted by Development Gateway.  Since Jean-Louis and his colleagues not only participated substantively but took the administrative burden off our back, the Labs gained momentum rapidly.  As a result, we started life as a separate legal entity late this year with the wind in our sails - over 400 organizations, foundations, and governments have now participated in collaborations we've hosted.

I felt guilty all those years for turning down Jean-Louis' offer in 1987.  But maybe there was a hidden logic.  Maybe that first offer was just preliminary to the real thing, which had not yet emerged.

Whatever the case the Labs would probably not exist without Jean-Louis, and in any case we could not have achieved what we have without his support.  For that I am profoundly grateful.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 46 - Uncle James

James Skaggs, 1922-2016
The last time I saw my great Uncle James, I asked him how he was doing.  He said fine, though he was annoyed that he had shrunk by one inch, down to six foot-two or -three.  "And I can't dunk anymore," he said, though he was pleased he had been able to show the younger generation some good moves on the basketball court the previous week.

Uncle James died this morning, days short of his 95th birthday. His posture was better when I saw him a few months ago than mine will ever be. His good nature and kindness and decency set a standard.

He was my father's mother's brother. He had spent his career working in mining in eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia.  He was one of a kind.

RIP, Uncle James.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 45 - "Hick" in Overalls

This great piece by Bill Easterly dissecting the temptations and dangers of stereotyping brought to mind the following story.

In 1979, I had a teaching assistant for my undergraduate statistics class at Chapel Hill. For some reason, the real professor was sick or a no show, so this guy had to teach the whole course. He was a good ol' boy - probably all of 24 or 25 years old - and he told us he was from rural North Carolina (Farmville, I think).  My heart sank when he walked in sporting an incredibly ill-fitting pair of overalls.  With a smirk on my face I tried - without success - to slip out the back door.  He called the class to attention, and said something to the effect of: 
“Now listen up boys and girls.  I want you to write these five things down in your little notebooks, and if you remember nothing else from the entire semester, just regurgitate ‘em on the final exam, and you will pass.  Here we go, ready? 1) Population distributions (at least normal ones) have a mean.  2) Population distributions have a variance around the mean. 3) Populations with a positive mean can have part of their distribution in negative territory, and you gotta keep this in mind, because it can be really bad news.  4) Populations with different means often have hugely overlapping distributions, so they ain’t all that different when it comes down to it.  5) Over time, especially for human populations, the mean can change, the variance can change, and even the individual observations can change position in the distribution.  Now, let me show you how to draw this stuff, and then I want you to get your little butts out of here and go back to your fraternity and sorority parties.”  
I wrote those five things down, and in those 30 minutes I learned half or more of what I know today  And it’s taken me decades to realize how lucky I was to have that “hick” in overalls for a teaching assistant.  I wish I knew his name so I could thank him personally.

Saturday, July 30, 2016


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 44 - Bob Whittle

William Robert Whittle, 1953-2016
My uncle Bob taught me important things about how to live and how to die.

In the 1960s, at his parents place at "The Lake" in rural Kentucky, he taught us nephews and nieces card tricks, practical jokes, and how to make trouble without getting into (too much) trouble.

In late 1979 and early 1980, he and his wife Paula looked after me when I was a lonely college freshman living near by.

In the late 1990s, I watched and learned as he left a job working for "the man" and started his own business.

In the 2000s, I became more aware of how he was a friend to all and a stranger to none, something I have tried (and failed) to emulate. I hope to do better with the parenting skills he taught me.

And then, in May, just a few weeks before he died, I was stunned to get an invitation from him to a lobster bake.  He knew he had only a short time to live and wanted to assemble friends and family  for one last party while he could still enjoy a good meal and conversation.  We assembled at the same "Lake" place where we spent so much time in the 1960s.  We ate an enormous amount of outstanding lobster while he regaled us with a tale of a practical joke he had played on his surgeon and the nurses a few days before.

And then, on June 15, he was gone.  He was only 62. But I feel lucky to have had him as my uncle, and as a role model, for any amount of time.  RIP, Uncle Bob.

Monday, June 27, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 43 - Dr. John Niparko

John Niparko, 1955- 2016

John Niparko died April 25, aged 61.

A pioneer of cochlear implants, John transformed the world for thousands of people with severe hearing loss. In addition to his surgery and teaching, he co-founded the Listening Center at Johns Hopkins, and then the River School in Washington, DC - both with Nancy Mellon, his frequent collaborator.

I saw his work first hand: he gave my son the ability to hear for the first time at age four, and then to begin speaking soon thereafter.

There are many things to be said not only for John's clinical and academic accomplishments, but also for his humanity.  He would reassure parents when their kids came for testing, and then go into the gym next door to shoot hoops with the kids to relive their anxiety.

I am profoundly grateful to John Niparko for what he has done - for the world, and for my family.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 42 - Shari Berenbach

Shari Berenbach
Shari Berenbach has died.  Most of us had no idea she was so ill.  That is because she always - always - had a smile on her face and an encouraging word for those of us trying to develop new ways of creating opportunity for the world.

I met her in Budapest in 2001 at a small, intense meeting of some of the early pioneers in social finance.  Most of us were in the early ideation phase, but through her visionary work at Calvert Foundation Shari had already achieved more than the majority of social entrepreneurs do in a lifetime.

I remember that at that meeting someone referred to her as the "grandmother" of social finance.  She was a bit offended, saying that she was only in her 40s!  But in retrospect, it was true: Despite the small age difference, she treated many of us over the years with fond indulgence, and helped us the way that grandmothers do - in my case acting as the original fiscal sponsor of a crazy idea called GlobalGiving in the shaky early years.  GlobalGiving might well not exist today if not for her early help.

There are many good people trying to do good in the world. But Shari stood out.  RIP, Shari. May the rest of us live up to your example.

Friday, December 11, 2015

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 41: Angus Deaton

The first course I took in grad school in 1983 was from Angus Deaton, who just won the Nobel in Economics.

He taught me to:

  • think clearly and plainly about the big questions
  • avoid complexity when simplicity suffices
  • always, always, always re-examine my assumptions and conclusions

But most importantl, he taught me - by his own example - to be strive to be humane and humble in the service of trying to do good.
PS: And if you want to know what kind of person he is, just watch the 4 minutes starting at 33:00, where he first describes his debt to specific people he has worked with, and then describes his debt (including sartorial!) to the giants on whose shoulder he has stood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 40 - Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers, Sr. Director of Engineering
It's difficult to overstate the role that Steve Rogers has played in GlobalGiving, where he recently celebrated his tenth anniversary.

In the early days, he was in charge of the back end of the website as well as the front end - and almost everything in between, including internal systems.  The job would have overwhelmed lesser mortals.  But not Steve.  He put his head down and took a never-say-never attitude (admittedly blowing his stack now and then, which no one blamed him for!). He gradually laid the foundation for the world-class tech and product team GlobalGiving has today.

A while ago, the whole GlobalGiving team asked Steve to reflect on what he has learned. Below is an excerpt well worth reading.

"As many of us who have crossed from the private sector for-profit world to the non-profit technology sector, I love the mission and while often being under-funded, under-staffed, and over-achieving, any frustration dissipates at the end of the day when I think of all the great social entrepreneurs and grassroots organizations that benefit from what GlobalGiving provides.
I have learned (and live) these lessons:
  • You can’t hit a grand slam if you don’t get some runners on base.
  • You can still score (and win) with several well placed “bunts.”
  • Incremental and iterative growth (a good leadoff) and change can lead to a “game changer” (stolen base).
  • Always be open to new ideas – encourage discussion; be inclusive. Take a seventh inning stretch to reflect and listen!
  • Never settle for, or give in to, the status quo. Don’t worry if that fly ball gets “lost in the lights”, track it, chase it down and make the play!"

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 39 - Alexis Nadin

"When I first joined GlobalGiving as an intern in 2008, I was a firm believer in local solutions to local problems but, to be honest, I was skeptical about what small, community-based organizations could really accomplish.... But you proved me wrong. That first Open Challenge was a huge success. Twenty organizations from places like Nepal, Madagascar, Philippines, and Sierra Leone secured a spot on GlobalGiving."
That is from the blog post that Alexis Nadin wrote to project leaders announcing her departure from GlobalGiving.  As she says, she joined as an intern in 2008, but what she doesn't say is that within a few weeks, her colleagues and boss knew she was a "keeper."  Shortly after her internship, we hired her full time, and before long she was radically enhancing the way that GlobalGiving delivers value to project organizations around the world.

The messages coming in now from project leaders around the world are special because they show how Alexis combines technical excellence with real caring about people.  She knows that numbers are important - she is one of the reasons that GlobalGiving has helped channel nearly $200 million to 13,000 projects in 165 countries - but that people themselves are even more important.

Here is more from Alexis, who characteristically attributes everything she did to the people she was doing her best to assist:
In addition to the ins and outs of online fundraising and how to articulate and measure an organization’s impact, you’ve also taught me about the importance of building personal, human relationships.
Alexis is off to do some well-deserved traveling and then on to a graduate program in South Africa.  It's hard to believe it's been seven years since she joined.  But she achieved more in those seven years than many people do in their entire careers.

And I am really grateful for the chance to be part of an organization - and a real team -  that can attract and unleash the talents of someone like Alexis.  She is one of those people for whom "good enough" is never good enough.  She won't rest until something is GREAT, and then she makes it better.  She embodies the GlobalGiving ideal of "Never Settle."

Thank you, Alexis.