MacGyvering Social Good, Part 1: How Top Givers Help Others Without Burning Out
The desire to help others is a powerful one — most of us got to where we are because somebody stuck themselves out for us. We want to pay it forward when we’ve made our way (or at made least progress in doing so).
Then inboxes can fill up with requests for advice, guidance, or to “pick our brain.” For givers, it can be a challenge to find the right approach to helping people, while still living life happily and sustainably.
In multiple conversations, I heard the same question arise about achieving this balance. So over the last month or so I decided to reach out to more than 50 of the most generous givers in New York City- entrepreneurs and investors, authors and creatives, consultants and connectors- and ask them how they did it. What were their habits, mindsets, and systems to make sure they had a “live/give” balance in their life?
I compiled their responses in a database, as well as some publicly shared habits of noted givers, and wanted to share as many as I could publicly, so that others can find the same balance in their lives.
In Part 1, I share the habits of these givers for taking care of themselves while giving, broken into three sections: habits of mind, of time management, and of communication.
In Part 2, which I will publish in February, I will share the practices and frameworks givers use to provide help to more people at scale, without using more time.
NOTE: Some of these habits and practices may not be suitable for everyone. This is not intended as a universal guide, but as resource for potential practices that might be helpful. It is also not exhaustive- I’ll continue to update this post as other givers share their ideas with me.
For readers looking to be more effective and sustainable givers, I hope that this serves as a helpful resource to provide insight into how proficient givers think and approach the work. Enjoy.
Managing The Mindset
Remember your own interests- As Adam Grant has remarked in writings about his book Give and Take, there is a difference between generosity (“giving without depleting your time and energy”) and selflessness (“helping without boundaries.”)
You can’t help everyone with everything, and if you try to, your help won’t be that valuable- As Jiro Otsuka of the Urban Future Labs puts it, your help will be a reflection of you- “if you are not happy/successful, then it may not be likely that what you are offering will make the other person happy/successful.” Furthermore, it eliminates the possibility of finding our strengths: For Michael Roderick, Founder of ConnectorCon,“If we try being all things to all people, we never get to contribute enough to develop our true zone of genius.”
Find what your giving “powers” are, and how you most enjoy helping others- Grant breaks down givers into six types:
- Experts share knowledge.
- Coaches teach skills.
- Mentors give advice and guidance.
- Connectors make introductions.
- Extra-milers show up early, stay late, and volunteer for extra work.
- Helpers provide hands-on task support and emotional support.
For Danny Quick, Product Manager at Fancy, when you find ways of helping that you enjoy, “It’s not ‘work you have to do,’ but rather something you look forward to doing and get energized when given the opportunity to do so.” Knowing your giving “type” empowers you to say yes to what you enjoy, and to pass along other opportunities to colleagues more suited to help.
Define yourself by giving proactively on your terms, so that future requests match your “type”- How do you avoid requests that don’t match your type? If you start actively helping according to your type, you will become known for it, and will get a narrower range of requests. Grant writes about the story of Adam Rifkin, a computer programmer who was a natural connector, and who made three mutually beneficial introductions a day for a decade, or more than 10,000 introductions. His inbox, previously wide-ranging in request types, narrowed in scope, because he established himself as a connector.
Keep a high bar for what you give- For events and other commitments, don’t allow yourself to get pulled into requests that don’t excite you. Tom Anderson, a personal finance writer for CNBC, keeps the Hell Yes Rule: If your reaction to an opportunity is not a hell-yes, it’s a no.
Pick an organization or cause (or two) to which you commit your focused support- Andrew Horn , Founder of Tribute, chooses 2–3 non-profits to commit tangible hours and donations to. The benefit? The focused help allows you to see more of an impact from your contributions, as opposed to spreading yourself amongst more causes. It also allows you to graciously say no to other requests, because you are already donating your free time to these causes.
Living and giving are not mutually exclusive- There can be overlap, and if you design it right, they can feed off of each other. You can include people in your life in ways that do not interfere with your priorities (more in Managing Your Minutes.) You can also design a life where you make a living supporting others. luke schantz, evangelist for the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program, mentioned that community and giving roles can be institutionalized by larger players- evangelists for companies, community managers for startups and venture capital firms, and so on. If you allow yourself to be creative, you can make your giving into your living. (More detail on institutionalizing giving in Part 2.)
Giving can help you too- Some givers shared that it is possible to make the giving habit more mentally sustainable if there are benefits for the giver as well. An accountant transitioning into the startup realm might be able to help a non-profit build budget projections; an aspiring copywriter can help write messaging for a social justice campaign. If you are developing credibility for a skill, you can use that skill in support of others, and build your brand along the way.
Remember your value- You’ve likely invested significant time and money into developing your skills, experience, and knowledge that have garnered you success. It’s ok to regard your time as valuable- because it likely is. That might mean asking “requesters” to show they are serious by putting in some extra effort ahead of time. (See Managing Your Minutes.) Or it might mean providing help to those who are willing to treat it as valuable by compensating you for your time if ask is more intensive or your normally charge for your time. Doer is a great platform for experts to provide their time to people, at a rate that they set for payment.
Keep an open mind about who you help- It can be easy to be picky about who you help, based on whether or not somebody is new to an industry, younger, etc. But as Steven-Tristan de Young, VP of Growth at GrubHub, has shared, you never know who might be your future employer, employee, colleague, investor, business partner or evangelist- treat them as if they could be any of those. Goodwill tends to find its way back around.
Help other givers- Those that consistently take can drain your energy quickly. If you focus on givers, and empower them with your support, they tend to be more appreciative, more reciprocally supportive, and energizing. How can you tell the difference? Grant sums up one way nicely in a recent Harvard Business Review article:
“Consider how the request for help is made. Givers recognize that asking for help is an imposition on your time, and they go out of their way to make it as easy as possible for you to respond. They ask for five-minute favors and offer to work around your schedule. Takers, on the other hand, contact you out of the blue and ask if you can “jump on a call today,” follow up multiple times if you don’t respond right away, and insist on meeting on their terms even though they’re the ones imposing on you. Another sign is that when you give an inch, they try to take a mile. Givers respond to help with gratitude and a willingness to pay it forward. If they follow up, they do so cautiously and without expectations.”
Remind yourself why you do it- Sometimes the best way to get yourself in the right state of mind about giving is to remind yourself about what motivates you. As a former teacher, I keep in touch with former students and visit their schools to remind myself about the importance of providing them opportunities through organizations such as BUILD. It might mean keeping an email folder for tagged thank-you notes and communications of appreciation, or as an investor attending founder events to reconnect yourself with your passion for entrepreneurship. Getting back into the world of those you help can reignite your empathy and passion.
Managing Your Minutes
Limit your “help” time- Allow yourself only a set number of meetings a week to help others, or allocate yourself only a specific amount of time to help others- a half hour before work each day, Friday evenings, or however you decide to set the boundary. Technology can be useful here- for whatever scheduling platform you might use, you can block off specific times, only during which you are open to “help” meetings.
Set a hard stop- Those you are helping will appreciate this as much as you do. Communicating about a hard stop time for any conversation gives the conversation appropriate urgency, and prevents you from losing guarded work time.
Phone calls- Not every ask requires an in-person chat. Phone calls can be done whenever, even in transit. Every minute can count when you see the gaps in your productive time- that 5 block walk to the subway? Could be enough to take care of an ask. Calls also are much easier to schedule, and can be moved around with less friction than face-to-face meetings.
Match the response to the need- Many people I spoke with will clarify asks over email before doing a call, to make sure it is necessary, and then only an in-person meeting if it makes sense after call. For Seth Godin’s altMBA Director Wes Kao, it can be helpful to consider whether the response is best shared in real time- it may be fine to chat asynchronously to answer the request.
Create a system of rules to follow- Some friends, whose productivity I highly respect, went so far as to tell me their personal rule systems that they use to cut out time deciding how to handle asks. (I.e., if ask is X minutes or less, do Y, and if it it relates to A, do B.) One common rule was that if the ask was 3–5 minutes or less, many would take care of those tasks immediately.
Mix your giving time with what you already do- Oftentimes your “giving” time doesn’t need to be a separate part of your day. Where can you include conversations in your activities without eating into work time? Sumeet Shah, Principal at Brand Foundry Ventures, has taken entrepreneurs with him to his boxing training sessions on weekends. theSkimm’s Community Manager Kaylin Marcotte on occasion extends invitations to a free event that she is attending for startups during the week. I have invited people to attend Founders Fridays with me, and we chat briefly afterwards. Aaron Cohn gave me the idea of inviting people asking to talk to my weekend conversational runs with friends in NYC entrepreneurs. And in the extreme, Rey Caacbay, Director of Partnerships for The Next Web, even went so far as to invite his colleagues from Amsterdam to join him in New York for a work-cation and educational dive into the media business.
Know your productive time, and protect it zealously- However you set limits on your time, make sure you know when you are most productive, and don’t interfere with it. It might mean that to protect your holy productivity time, you take calls on lunch hours, support volunteer work on the weekend, or even specify “work hours” and “play hours” in your calendar. A number of people told me that using their mornings before work for such emails, calls, and meetings gave them a strong start to the work day.
Stack calls to avoid switching costs- Wes Kao provided this tip. Switching from a call to work and back again can reduce productivity and focus.
Chunk your work into one day instead of spreading it out- One of Grant’s favorite studies examined the moods and energy of people who spread out acts of kindness over multiple days, and that of people who chunked it into one day. The “sprinklers” did not experience any improvement in mood, whereas the “chunkers” experienced a more lasting boost in energy and happiness. As Grant writes, “One act of helping a day does nothing for your mood because it’s a drop in the bucket. A distracting blip. But if you help five people every Thursday, you feel you’ve made a difference each week. And you have more flexibility to make progress in your own work the rest of the time.”
Hold office hours- Save on commute time, limit giving time, and keep focus. For closed office hours, his may mean simply taking pre-scheduled meetings in succession from a camp-out location during a day. A number of VC’s and entrepreneurs had their favorite go-to place for this. For open office hours, some would share their availability for meetings at this place for people to drop by. This is a favorite of my peers who work in government. (I wish this was a more common practice.)
Share the workload- Just because you are the “giver,” does not mean you need to do all the work. Sometimes having them take on a share of the responsibility makes them a more active participant and demonstrates their seriousness:
- Campaign strategist max clermont requests anyone seeking coaching or advice to send him pre-reads (resume, latest writing/blog post, scenarios, questions, bio, what they’ve been working on last few months, etc.) so that he can come to any meeting prepared.
- R1 Labs Founder Daren McKelvey creates a time-efficient, accelerated framework for some people by first asking them the top 3 goals they need help with achieving in order of priority. Then he hashes out a list of names of 5–8 people who may be strategically helpful in supporting those goals in the short, medium, and long term. Once opt-in intros are made to people in his community of connections, he sets a follow-up meeting to check progress on the initial goals.
- Multiple givers I spoke with have those requesting a connection write the introduction language to be used. (This is a common but not universal practice.)
- Andrew Horn focuses on having people make sure they are asking themselves the right questions. “Often times people are looking for clarity about what to do next and have no sight of what the ultimate goal is… Questions help people establish a Northstar of what is most important to their personal development and professional success.” His biggest questions: 1. Why am I passionate about this, why does it deserve to exist? 2. How do I want to make money off this, how big can it be? 3. What is the most important thing I need right now?
- Horn is also a fan of having people starting the business process refer to the Guy Kawasaki pitch deck- to give people clarity about what they need and whether or not they truly believe in their business.
- For those who already have documented content (videos, audio recording, articles and books on a topic) they directed people to those resources first, as a way of hearing the advice they’d normally give. That allows them to address more advanced topics if and when they met with people.
Don’t repeat unnecessary work- When it comes to help and information that is requested repeatedly, many top givers with less spare time create systems that allow them to save a lot of time over the long-run:
- Startup Weekend Organizer Chantal Gagnon keeps a Google Doc with short profiles for people: Name (hyperlinked to Linkedin Profile), what they do (hyperlink to company, if applicable) and how she knows them. With two clicks, half of her email introductions are done.
- For those “brain pick requester” emails, startup strategy consultant Avery Roth suggests creating an FAQ doc which you can send back with a nice note attached. “This can work efficiently for the stock questions (‘what’s your story, how did you achieve XYZ, what’s your advice for breaking into XYZ’) and/or for beginners on their particular path, whose questions will still be quite general.”
- For author Dorie Clark, deciding which questions merit a writeup is a simple rule of 3: If at least 3 people ask the same question, write up a documented response, in whatever form that may take.
- You also don’t have to invent the wheel when there is writing already out there on a topic. Creator Lab podcaster Bilal Zaidi keeps a log of relevant articles on Evernote and in his bookmarks to share with people. A friend also recently shared with me a fantastically structured email in which KEC Ventures investor Brian Laung Aoaeh provided a digest of 60+ resources for first-time startup founders.
Tech can be your friend (if you want it)- I received the following tech recommendations in responses:
- For scheduling: X.ai is a favorite for some, including Danny Quick. Responses also included Calendly. I am a fan of G Suite’s Appointments Feature, which I got from Brittany Gorevic. For a few bucks a month, you can block off time slots in your day for “appointments.” You send people the link to your calendar, and they select a time with one click, and it schedules into your calendar. Three reasons I like it: First, I can see my calendar on the same screen when I block off times for appointments. Second, if I need to change a call time, I can just physically move the appointment block in my calendar app on my phone, and the appointment automatically changes, sending the other person a new invite to accept or decline. Third, there is no encroachment on my productive hours- I select the times I am willing to meet, and the other person gets to choose from only those blocks, even if it is a few weeks or even months out.
- For communication: OrderGroove engineer Michael Scotto sometimes communicates via texting/messaging- it allows him to text from his computer which can save a lot of time. Mateusz Kaliski also put me onto feature-rich Gmail chrome extension MixMax, which includes supports for fast scheduling, polling, link preview, and a few other helpers. Aaron Cohn swears by Google video calling app Duo.
- For organization: I like to use the Streak chrome extension to keep track of followups. If I promise to check in with someone in two weeks about their progress, I send myself a scheduled email, and it comes back into my inbox then to remind me. Strategist Tina Yip is a fan of Trello boards to keep track of who she is in touch with and wants to check up on.
Managing Your Messaging
Make promises you know you can commit to- There is really nothing worse for your credibility than not being a person of your word. For talent strategist and investor Arthur Matuszewski, it’s better to set expectations to keep others’ needs in mind and do so than promise specific things that are onerous to deliver. The “front of mind” promise can include sending along relevant articles, and dropping their name in conversation with relevant people to help spur interest.
Double Opt-In Introductions- It can be helpful to check with both parties before making any introduction. (This is a common, but not universal practice.) It ensures that any connections you provide are mutually beneficial. I tend to go with the form of: “Would this conversation be of interest/of value to you?” It also gives you an explanation if you receive an introduction request that you are unsure about doing- if the other person says yes, you are fine. And if they say no thanks, you have your out.
Never say “I Can’t”- Dream Space founder Anastasia Alt practices saying “I don’t” “I won’t” or “I am not currently,” but never “I can’t” in response to an ask. As she told me, “‘I can’t’ is simply never the case. When someone asks if they may introduce me to Barack Obama to help him find a great coach for his transition from POTUS to ex-POTUS, I want to be able to write back that ‘While I am not currently accepting new introductions, I suppose I can make an exception in this case. However, if I ‘can’t speak with new people’ during a focused period of work, then I’d be out of luck!’ You never know when you might want to say yes.
It’s about bandwidth- When in doubt, explaining your busyness in terms of low bandwidth is usually widely understood.
When saying no, explain what you are currently focusing on- When you are focused on a project and have your blinders on, Anastasia recommends sharing why you are busy. “I find that repeating my priority and sharing it with others requires me to continually check in with myself that I am living and working deliberately,” she said. “It also invites whomever I am speaking with to support me on my journey. In fact, an artfully worded decline of an invitation explaining my current priority to launch my startup led to our joining an accelerator vis-a-via a introduction the person made.” How might one word a decline so artfully? An example, with a little oomph:
“Thank you for thinking of me. Ordinarily, I would accept with bells on! However, my current priority is the successful launch of _______. As a result, I am declining new introductions during this critical period to remain focused on my biggest goal for 2017. I appreciate your understanding and would love to reconnect later in the year.”
This post was a bit lengthy, but hope you enjoyed it and found something worthwhile in it. If you did, recommending it to others with that little heart button might help a few more givers improve their work and their happiness.
Not everybody will agree with every strategy on this list. It’s helpful to see the universe of what can be done, so that we at least know what might be possible to make giving more sustainable.
I hope that this allows you to give to others in your life that can benefit from your special gifts, while still living a life that you fully enjoy.
I’ll continue to update this post as givers share their ideas with me. If you don’t see something on here that you practice, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @MikeMacCombie.
-Mike MacCombie, Evertrue Ventures