Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Thanks to the magic of DVR, I was able to watch two of the greatest athletes ever perform at the peak of their powers yesterday.

First, I saw Barcelona overturn a 2-nil deficit to defeat AC Milan in the Champions League by an aggregate score of 4-2.   At the heart of the victory stood Lionel Messi, who scored two great, game-changing goals.  If you have even the slightest interest in sport, you owe it to yourself to find a way to watch Messi play.  He's truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.  There is nothing obviously world-class about Messi when you look at him.  He's not big -- in fact, he's often the smallest guy on the pitch.  He doesn't appear strong -- although he is clearly tough given how many knocks he takes and how few games he misses.  He is fast, but not blindingly so.   But there is something magical about Messi's feet and his brain.  My friend David Shenk and others have written about how genius is largely a product of hard work rather than some god-given attribute.  I find that argument mostly compelling until I watch someone like Messi play.  And then I find it hard not to believe that he has been endowed with a special gift that no amount of practice could possibly summon.

After watching Barcelona's comeback victory, I then fast-forwarded my way through the Miami Heat's win over the Atlanta Hawks.  In some ways, this was an unexceptional, mid-season NBA game, except for the fact that it was the Heat's 19th win in a row.  They are playing the game at an unbelievably high level at the moment.  While the ESPN highlights tend to focus on the Heat's propensity for alley-oop dunks, what has impressed me the most during this win streak is how many open jump shots they get.  They penetrate and rotate the ball as well as any team I can remember.

At the heart of the Heat's success is, of course, Lebron James.  He actually had a bad shooting night against the Hawks -- an exceedingly rare occurrence these days.  But it is a measure of his greatness that he is still able to dominate a game without shooting well thanks to his passing, rebounding, energy, and defensive presence.   To watch him do all of these things night after night  -- much to my wife's chagrin, I have NBA League Pass -- has been a regular source of joy throughout the long winter.

At the risk of being corny, I find the greatness of Lebron James and Lionel Messi inspiring.  Whenever I talk to young people just starting their careers, I always advise them to worry less about what they will be working on and more about who they will be working for and with.  I encourage them to seek out great bosses and great colleagues.  That was what made the difference for me.  When I met John Feinblatt and started working with people like Michele Sviridoff and Eric Lee and Al Siegel (and so many others)...that was when my career kicked into another gear. Working with folks like these is a little bit like being a teammate of Messi or James -- they put you in a position where you can shine and you end up developing better work habits along the way.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Non-Profit Musings

I spent a good part of the last two days talking about non-profit innovation.  First, I spent some time with the 2013 class of Coro Fellows, who are just beginning month-long non-profit assignments.  Then I attended an upstate Nonprofit Leadership Summit.

At both locations, I tried to make the case that the non-profit sector is one of the under-appreciated strengths of the United States (self-serving, I know).  This idea came up last week when I met with a visiting prisoners' rights advocate from Turkey.  One of the things she talked about was how difficult the playing field was for a non-governmental organization in Turkey -- the country didn't have a rich tradition of civic groups working to achieve important social goals.

By contrast, American history is rife with voluntary organizations and charitable causes.  Indeed, de Tocqueville highlighted this feature of American life nearly two hundred years ago, writing in Democracy in America:

“Through associating, the coming together of people for mutual purpose, both public and private, Americans are able to overcome selfish desires, thus making both a self-conscious and active political 
society and a vibrant civil society functioning independently from the state.”

Despite the importance of non-profit organizations to our economy (I recently read that non-profits employ more than 13 million people in the US), non-profits tend not to attract a lot of public attention.  The other day I was bemoaning this fact and complaining that The New York Times has a daily business section, but no non-profit equivalent.  But then I realized that, if you look at it the right way, every section of The New York Times is the non-profit section.  Indeed, you can't read the arts section without reading about non-profit theater and dance companies, to say nothing of museums.  And you can't read the front page without coming across some non-profit group that is either implementing or influencing government policy.  Even the sports section is full of stories about colleges and organizations like the US Olympic Committee.   

Like anything else, if you look hard enough you can find faults with the non-profit sector.  Indeed, the former head of National Public Radio has recently released a book criticizing charities for, among other things, not achieving demonstrable impacts.  (Full disclosure: I haven't read the book, just the coverage of it.)  

I don't deny that there are problems in our sector -- redundancy, low-performing groups, mushy thinking, etc.  But I'd be awfully surprised if non-profits didn't come out ahead when you compared them to businesses and government agencies on these fronts.   

Friday, March 1, 2013

Rehabilitation and Prevention in the Bronx

This afternoon, Bronx Community Solutions hosted a lunch to celebrate moving into new space in the Bronx Criminal Court.  After 7 years of operating out of various windowless nooks and crannies, the project now has an attractive office to call its own.  At today's lunch event, Bronx District Attorney Rob Johnson spoke about his connection to the Bronx Community Solutions space, which formerly served as a courtroom; when he was a judge, Johnson actually presided over arraignments there.

Johnson's history with Bronx Community Solutions goes even deeper than that.  As our deputy director, Al Siegel, made clear in his remarks, Johnson helped plant the seed for Bronx Community Solutions.  Almost a decade ago, he argued that we should try to apply community court-style sanctions (i.e. community restitution and social services) to misdemeanor offenders throughout the Bronx, as opposed to a single neighborhood.  In his speech, Johnson picked up on this theme, emphasizing the importance of an approach to justice that foregrounds "rehabilitation and prevention" rather than simply defaulting to incarceration over and over again.

There was a lot to like about today's event, which featured delicious cupcakes, representation from almost all of our criminal justice partners in the Bronx, and plenty of good cheer.  But my favorite part was simply being in the space, which is bright and airy and adorned with quotations from a range of people whose lives have intersected with Bronx Community Solutions -- cops, defendants, attorneys, judges and others.  Even without the inspiring wall text, the non-verbal message that the space sends to participants is clear: Bronx Community Solutions is a program that is designed to treat individual defendants -- and the legal process -- with dignity and respect.