University: Where Nice Ideas Go to Die

A Keynote Delivered to the Graduating Group from the John Curtin Leadership Academy of 2018

Uni’s are a funny place. I mean that in a nice way of course – they can be the making of people, or they can also be the breaking of people.

For me, they are a place where nice ideas go to die.

My nice idea was to go to university to study a degree in Banking and International Finance and I gave it everything I had…for about a week, until I discovered that I didn’t know anything about economics and even less about accounting. This was not fatal, but my problem was that I didn’t care about those things. This was the start of the death march of my nice idea.

So I left uni after a term and went to work in a bank, can you believe. I spent 5 years working my way up and ended up selling financial products to financial planners. My recollection of that time was that I would meet with people and they would tell me how many millions of dollars they had in funds under management and I would pretend to be impressed and understand what that really meant. One day I woke up and realised that I didn’t care about that either. So I left the bank to find something that I could find purpose in. The nice idea finally died.

There is a difference between nice ideas and world changing ideas. Nice ideas are normally ones that others may suggest for you, or ones that you think will be okay mostly because you have nothing better to do. World changing ideas are the ones that grab you by the scruff of the neck and throw you into a place completely out of your comfort zone. They change your life, the lives of those around you and potentially the world as you know it.

My world changing idea came from a casual job. From the bank I went into community radio for a while, then went back to study at Bible College. At that point I needed a casual job to keep some money coming in, and somehow landed a role with World Vision in their Youth Team. I’m not entirely sure how I got it, I have it on good authority that I wasn’t in the top 8 applicants. (That’s in the top 10, so that is still good…right?)

I spent 9 years engaging young people in the fight against poverty and my world changing idea was created. I studied my Masters of International and Community Development and now with Opportunity International, I continue to find my place and my purpose in the world. The more I learn about development and empowerment, the greater purpose I find in overcoming poverty. You see, poverty has such a devastating effect on people – it makes it impossible to see past your immediate needs today to be able to plan ahead, or hope for a future keeping people trapped and unable to reach their full potential.

There is poverty of the non-poor too. This is where too much creates poverty. This kind of poverty, where there is excess, creates greed, corruption, health issues from too much food, and slavery to the idea of a bigger and better house, a newer car, a faster boat. Somewhere in the middle of nothing and excess there is a balance where we are neither a slave to survival nor a slave to possessions.

Overcoming poverty of the non-poor requires generosity; learning to master the excess and become skilled at giving money away. This also, is how we overcoming the issue of financial poverty. It creates a place where people can reach their full potential. But potential is hard to measure so knowing whether or not we reach it is a little difficult – except to say this, you drastically underestimate what you are capable of and you drastically underestimate what the people around you are capable of. Although to reach your full potential requires good people.

Like Jim Rohn says, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. So find some amazing people that challenge you and push you beyond your comfort zone and make them your people, because we were designed for growth.

So, do you have a nice idea that needs to die so you can discover your world changing idea?

 

 

Psychological Stress of Poverty

What happens when you stress about money?

There is a story about sugarcane farmers in India – a group of researchers tested their IQ after harvest when they had money, then again a few months later right before the harvest. The difference was that they scored nearly 10 points less when tested right before the harvest. They simply had less mental energy to focus on the test.

That is the impact of poverty and financial insecurity. It is mentally overwhelming. Poverty places a huge burden on each person’s finite mental bandwidth which creates tunnel vision as well as decreases cognitive function. All of this makes it harder to focus on anything beyond the current problem, to problem solve, resist impulses or think long-term.

It’s not that the sugarcane farmers lacked intelligence or became dumber, it was because of the circumstances they were in on the day they were tested.

This is a good reason we don’t talk about “poor families”, but instead “families living in poverty” – because their identity is not that they are poor, that is just their current context.

This phenomenon is the same everywhere in the world. Poverty has a crippling effect and stops people from reaching their full God given potential. It’s the reason that God’s heart is always for those trapped in the poverty cycle. We must keep working to overcome it.

Where the Help is Most Needed

Often people will have a particular area in the developing world that they are passionate about. So when they give money they will allocate it to that country or region.

Others may not have that connection and they will request that their funds be assigned to where the greatest need is.

With so much need in the world, how can anyone possibly suggest that one area is a priority over another?

It’s a difficult call.

Low income is one factor when it comes to poverty, but so is a lack of access to basic services, like clean drinking water, toilets, health and education, and vulnerability shocks, like illness, death or even festivals.

Opportunity International targets rural or under-served areas where poverty is high but the overall economic and political environment are stable. We also look for signs of development such as roads or markets in those areas of need. There is a tension between recognising the great need and also being able to genuinely create a positive impact and measure success over time. It’s vital to track and feedback on the projects that are being funded.

The greatest need is constantly shifting in our world as new events take place that cause poverty related issues, but also as more and more families work their way out of poverty. That’s the good news – today’s areas of greatest need will not be the same in the future because of the work that is being done.

Poverty of the Non-Poor

One of the greatest issues in our world, is the amount people living in extreme poverty.

One of the other great issues of our time is the impact of extreme wealth. They are two sides of the same coin.

People often talk about the great needs of the poor, but poverty has more than one definition.

There is such a thing as too much creating poverty. We call it the poverty of the non-poor.

This kind of poverty, where there is excess, creates greed, corruption, health issues from too much food, and slavery to the idea of a bigger and better house, a newer car, a faster boat.

Somewhere in the middle of nothing and excess there is a balance where we are neither a slave to survival nor a slave to possessions. The wisdom of Proverbs chapter 30 offers a prayer which says “Give me neither poverty nor riches, Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.”

Overcoming poverty of the non-poor requires generosity; learning to master the excess and become skilled at giving money away.

How Much Does That Cost?

How much do you spend on administration?

You know the question, you have possibly asked it before. How much of a donation to a charity gets spent on the programs and how much gets spent on staff and other back end costs. It’s a question I hear frequently about the organisation I work for and for every other not for profit in existence. It’s an important question because we need to be open about this, but it can’t be the only question we ask.

A colleague of mine, many years ago would ask people if they were needing life saving surgery would the most important question to the surgeon be about how much they charged or would it be about their success rate? Of course the response was that the success rate was the main thing people are interested in.

There are many organisations that people donate to that are quite literally saving lives around the world and how often do we ask about the success rate they have?

There needs to be a balance between the two, naturally, but the success rate should be just as, if not more important, than the administration rate.

Effectiveness in the work a not for profit does is not just about keeping costs low, it’s about having the greatest positive impact on our world.

Courage

If it was easy anyone could do it. If it was easy, it would already be done wouldn’t it?

Certain things in life are difficult, usually because the problems that we face day to day are not easily fixed and are multifaceted. Be they relational, financial, spiritual, emotional, life is a complex combination of joys and difficulties. Stuff is tough. That’s okay.

This is just as true when it comes to poverty. It is a complicated, multifaceted issue, which is also man made. We have created this construct which puts many people into a place where they don’t have enough to survive.

Whilst we have made significant headway in the fight against poverty over the last 40 years, there is still a way to go until we have overcome it. And I have to admit, there are times when I get so frustrated at the sight of many people, mothers, fathers, children, still trying to survive. But just because it is difficult to overcome, doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should stop fighting. Because the people that we are fighting for are worth it. So we continue to take one step at a time.

Like the American author Mary Anne Radmacher says:

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.

New

Once you stop learning, you start dying, according to Albert Einstein. Others would suggest that if you stop learning, you stop growing, or leading or teaching, or any number of things. Suffice to say, many people would consider that learning something new daily is as important as breathing. It is a natural part of life, to be curious and ask questions.

One thing that I have discovered is that the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know. Every time I finished a level of study, be it a University degree or a short course in something I always ended up with more questions than answers. The process would open up my eyes to more of what I didn’t know about. It’s one of life’s great contradictions, the more you learn the more you learn about how much you don’t know – but it doesn’t mean we stop.

For me, learning creates understanding and it is one of the best tools we have in the fight against poverty.

Once a mother in India, for example, learns that she has options, the ability to choose for herself what kind of business she can run or how many children to have, that she has the right to have an opinion or to learn a new skill, this initiates a social change and creates opportunity for her and her family to flourish. It changes her mindset and creates a whole new realm of what is possible.

It’s the ability to understand something today that you didn’t know existed yesterday which creates a place where people can begin to imagine what was previously unimaginable. That is the power of learning something new.

 

Myth: $2 a day

Extreme Poverty is defined as anyone living on less than about $2 a day. We still have hundreds of millions of people in that situation which is horrific and no one should ever have to go through it.

I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I would try to calculate what I could with $2 per day to see if there is a way that I could survive. Surely you can make anything work, if you budget well enough, were frugal with spending, survival would be possible. Extreme poverty can’t be that difficult. Can it?

Not only is that a harsh way to look at it, but my thinking also had a fundamental flaw. One of the most difficult aspects of life for those living in extreme poverty is the unpredictable manner in which they earn an income. Whilst in Australia, most of us know what our next pay check is going to be, when it will arrive in our bank account and how we can access it. In places like India for example, many work in unregulated areas and do so irregularly. They may earn $20 on day ten which averages out to $2 a day. Meaning that they don’t literally receive $2 every single day. It’s not neat and tidy and it makes budgeting and increasing financial security impossible.

There are many organisations, including Opportunity International, who are fighting against this and creating a way for people to earn a regular income to increase their financial security, making life just that little bit easier.

Buzzwords – Transformation

When you work in an industry for a while there are usually a number of words or phrases that become the flavour of the month or year or decade. Almost cliché like.

In an office environment I would hear ‘going forward’ regularly, or ‘synergy’ or ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’, ‘think outside the square’, ‘reinvent the wheel’…I could go on. Don’t get me started on the acronyms. Oh yes, the acronyms, mostly the TLA’s (three letter acronyms), there is COB (Close of Business), ROI (Return on Investment) FTE (Full Time Employee), ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival – should that not be ETOA?) or my favourite BAU (Business As Usual).

One word that gets overused and under appreciated is transformation. It sounds great but doesn’t necessarily carry with it specific meaning, thus it has become a fancy word that people use when are talking about change. But it’s much more than that.

From an International Development perspective, we talk about transformation in the lives of those living in poverty and it is helpful to define what that actually is. It is more than just change or transition, it is taking something and creating into something completely different.

Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the goal of development is to transform the lives of those living in poverty, which can bring sickness, hopelessness, and disempowerment, into lives that are highlighted by nutrition and health, a sense of hope and a future, and an empowerment to make decisions of their own behalf.

Transformation is a complete change into something new. Not just a better version of what was, but a brand new thing that didn’t exist before.

Now that’s a lofty goal, and one worth striving for.

Impact

Some things can be measured easily. When there are numerical values involved it is simple to compare. Like the size of your bank balance today compared to last week, you can tell the difference just by looking at it.

But measuring someone’s personal growth for example, when the indicators are not as tangible, and it requires some sort of gut feel, can be a little difficult.

It’s the same situation when we measure people’s journey out of poverty. Opportunity International provides small loans to mothers living in poverty and we measure the impact that has on the women and their family over time. The amount of money they earn is one indicator that can show they are leaving poverty behind, but there are so many other elements, like nutrition, sanitation, education, access to information and how hopeful they feel.

Some of this can be measured numerically, and some can’t. Not all elements improve at the same rate or at the same time, so how do you measure the impact?

Often it comes down to the individual. When they recognise they have the ability to make decisions on their own behalf, decisions that can change the lives of them and their families, this shows a level of empowerment which usually means that other elements are improving as well.

People are complex and cannot be measured by numerical values alone to discover what growth is happening.

How are you empowering those around you?