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Review: Doing Good Better – How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill

Do goodThis review first ran in the Nov. 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

By William MacAskill

Gotham Books

$32

You’ve worked hard to build a career, a company and a good life for your family.

You’re now looking to share your wealth.

Maybe you want to make a difference here in Hamilton, where one in four kids live in poverty and some of our priority neighbourhoods have health outcomes that more closely mirror Bangladesh than Brooklyn.

Or maybe you want to help out the 1.2 billion people beyond our borders who earn less than $1.50 a day.

There’s no shortage of problems to solve and worthy organizations to support. So what should you do?

Look past the news headlines and celebrity endorsements, says William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better, an associate professor at the University of Cambridge, co-founder of two non-profits and an advocate for effective altruism.

“I believe that by combining the heart and the head – by applying data and reason to altruistic acts – we can turn our good intentions into astonishingly good outcomes,” says MacAskill.

In the absence of data and reason, our best intentions can lead to bad outcomes that waste money and hurt the people we’re trying to help. “When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavor robs the act of virtue.”

MacAskill calls PlayPump a cautionary tale. Villages in Africa were given merry-go-rounds that doubled as water pumps. Every spin of the merry-go-round pumped water out of a well and into a storage tank. Kids now had somewhere to play and the grown-ups were spared from walking miles or waiting hours for clean water. PlayPump won a World Bank Development Marketplace Award plus money and endorsements from notables including the Case Foundation, the One Foundation, Laura Bush, Bill Clinton and Jay-Z.

But then came the reports from organizations like UNICEF. PlayPump needed constant force to spin which left kids exhausted. Some were falling off and breaking limbs while others had to be paid to play on the merry-go-round. Sometimes it was left to the adults to spin the PlayPump. To meet the daily water needs of a typical village, PlayPump had to be spinning 27 hours a day. And when the $14,000 pumps broke, there was no easy fix.

“No one had asked the local communities if they wanted a PlayPump in the first place,” says MacAskill.  With less effort at a lower cost, a hand pump that doesn’t grab headlines, awards and endorsements can provide five times as much water as PlayPump.

“One difference between investing in a company and donating to a charity is that the charity world often lacks appropriate feedback mechanisms. Invest in a bad company and you lose money but give money to a bad charity and you probably won’t hear about its failings.”

MacAskill encourages us to get answers to five questions before taking out our chequebooks and credit cards:

  • How many people will benefit and by how much?
  • Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  • Is this area neglected?
  • What would have happened otherwise?
  • What are the chances of success and how good would success be?

And what if you’re looking to do good and make a difference with your career? Signing up to work or volunteer with a nonprofit is one option.  It’s not one that MacAskill often recommends to freshly minted grads, given that you can gain more skills and credentials with for-profit companies that have the resources to invest in your career development.

“Instead of trying to make an immediate impact, you can invest in yourself while continuing to learn about which causes are most important, preparing yourself to make a bigger difference in the future.”

It’s worth remembering that anyone in Hamilton earning $28,000 a year is richer than 95 per cent of the world’s population. If you earn only $11,000, you’re among the world’s richest 15 per cent. So donating even a small amount of money can lead to an outsized contribution in developing countries.

“Rather than trying to maximize the direct impact you have with your job, instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. If we’re serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider.”

Start a habit of regular giving today, says MacAskill. “Sign up to make a regular donation, even if its’ just $10 per month. This is the easiest and most tangible way of having a massive immediate positive impact.” Just do your homework first and invest wisely.

Review: Bridging the Soft Skills Gap by Bruce Tulgan

gapThis review first ran in the Nov. 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent

By Bruce Tulgan

Wiley

$31.95

It’s not entirely your fault that you frustrate some of your older co-workers.

After all, you were raised by helicopter parents on steroids.

You went to schools that treated you more like a customer than a student.

You grew up a digital native, with smart phones and social media changing how you think and communicate.

And with all these Baby Boomers retiring and young talent in short supply, you were wined, dined and signed for your technical skills with no questions asked about your soft skills.

So we shouldn’t be shocked if you sometimes confuse your boss with a surrogate parent whose prime directive is to serve, praise, shelter, amuse and spare you from thankless tasks and daily grinds.

Gen Zers are the ultimate non-conformists in an age of non-conformism, says author Bruce Tulgan about the 20-somethings now joining the workforce.

“Trying to make the adjustment to ‘fitting in’ in the very real, truly high-stakes, mostly adult world of the workplace is a whole new game for them,” says Tulgan, the founder and CEO of a management research and training firm who’s interviewed thousands of managers about young employees. “And it’s not really their kind of game. They are less inclined to try to ‘fit in’ at work, and more inclined to try to make this ‘whole work thing’ fit in with them.”

Good luck with that.  Ignoring the soft skills gap does no favours for Gen Zers or their employers. Failing to close the gap can derail careers and cripple organizations.

“When employees have significant gaps in their soft skills, there are significant negative consequences,” warns Tulgan. “Potentially good hires are overlooked. Good hires go bad. Bad hires go worse. Misunderstandings abound. People become distracted. Productivity goes down. Mistakes are made. Customer service suffers. Workplace conflicts occur more frequently. Good people leave when they might have otherwise stayed longer.”

Tulgan slots soft skills into three categories.

  • Professionalism, which includes soft skills like self-evaluation, personal responsibility, a positive attitude, good work habits and people skills.
  • Critical thinking, with the essential soft skills of proactive learning, problem solving and decision-making.
  • Followership, built on key behaviors of respect for context, citizenship, service and teamwork.

“Show me an organization with a strong, positive corporate culture and I will show you an organization that is very clear about exactly which soft skill behaviors are high priority and sings about those high priority behaviors from the rooftops often.”

So how do organizations with a default-defined culture close the growing gap in soft skills?

Employers need to clearly define their mission-critical soft skills and then walk the talk, says Tulgan. “What are the high priority behaviors that are most important? Crucial to success? Or jet fuel for competitive differentiation? Make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly and systematically drive those behaviors in all your human capital management practices.”

That means hiring for soft skills. Developing those skills in both your new hires and veterans. Promoting and rewarding employees who exhibit those skills and cutting loose those who don’t.

“The fastest way to turn a mediocre performer into a low performer is to leave that person alone without any guidance, direction, support or coaching,” says Tulgan. “Your job is to lift up all those employees and help them do more work – faster and better every step of the way. Not just because that’s good for business but also because continuous improvement is the key to keeping Gen Zers focused and motivated.”

Drawing from best practices at employers that value and know how to develop soft skills, Tulgan offers up lesson plans for teaching the missing basics of professionalism, critical thinking and followership.

“Just imagine the impact you could have if you were to spend time every week systematically building up the soft skills of your team,” says Tulgan. “You would send a powerful message, week by week. You would make them aware. You would make them care. You would help them learn the missing basics one by one – one exercise at a time. You would build them up and make them so much better.”