Book review: What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness

On Idealists in Action, we love to tackle your biggest obstacles to doing good. One we hear a lot is, “I don’t have the skills or knowledge to start something.” This week, we’re taking that behemoth down.

Another way you can defeat the obstacles in your path is by joining the Idealist Network—a new online and on-the-ground platform we’re designing to help people everywhere connect and take action on any issue that concerns them, locally or globally. Sign up to attend our online launch on March 11 and see what it’s all about.

HERO-REVISEI’m kinda over the hero thing.

In contrast to their ancient origins in epic poetry and lofty myths, heroes and heroism today seem to have gotten wrapped up in our cultural view of altruism.

Although the meaning of “hero” is in that delicious group of highly subjective nouns that people love to debate, I tend to think it’s a bad idea to call those who engage in good and generous acts “heroes.”

Adorable child superheroes aside, when we conflate superhero stories with commonplace altruism, it implies that acts of goodness and giving are somehow extraordinary and outside the range of normal behavior.

In Elizabeth Svoboda’s new book What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness, the author tries to get to the bottom of whether or not this is true. Is it normal for humans to be generous? What would possess someone to rush into a burning building to save another person? Why would someone who lives in poverty donate money to a charity?

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Link roundup: Playful libraries, the secret to reading a lot of books, and more

Peep this slideshow from Flavorwire about the most playful libraries in the world:

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NYC’s Robin Hood Foundation library.

Read these:

Take action:

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Want to make lasting change? Get over your discomfort with money

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Photo via Shutterstock.

Whether we’re asking family for help, friends to pay us back, or funds to kick start a project, money is just one of those things that can make us feel weird.

But here’s the thing: we need money to take care of ourselves and others.  And for those of us working in the world of social good, we need money for our ideas, programs, and more. So why feel weird about it?

In a recent article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kyle Zimmer from First Book argues that we need to start  looking at how social enterprises have no qualms about putting money first and working with for-profit partners.

Changing the world is a complicated business. You need a powerful mission that will inspire and motivate people; you need a problem that needs solving and an effective way to solve it.

But you also need funding. It’s critical, but rarely the part that inspires people. The fundraising teams of most nonprofits work behind the scenes, searching (and competing) for donations and grants to fund the organization. That’s the traditional approach, and while it has been effective in some cases, it’s not the way forward.

Nonprofit social enterprises are flipping that model around using collaborative disruption—they are putting the funding component front and center by making it an integral part of the core mission, and working with for-profits and other nontraditional partners to deliver on that mission.

These kinds of approaches take some people by surprise, particularly those used to a traditional charity model—we give you some money, and you go off and do some good work with it. But it’s challenging—and ineffective—to create real, lasting social change with the old model, because you’re always working uphill against market forces instead of making them work for you. The collaborative disruption model, where nonprofits invest in for-profits to drive mission-related advances, can be effective no matter the scale.

Zimmer goes on to talk about how First Book, which gives brand-new books to low-income communities, reached out to several publishers with a bid to buy $500,00 worth of books featuring diverse voices rarely represented in children’s literature for The Stories for All Project.

Publishers loved the idea. Demand for these types of books means the industry has a reason to produce more diverse titles, thus helping First Book sustain its programs.

“It’s a market-driven solution, and that means it’s permanent,” Zimmer says.

What do you think? If you have the resources to invest, is working with market forces the way to go?

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How the Garden Library in Tel Aviv is growing community

Growing up with an Israeli mom and an American dad, I spent my summers in Tel Aviv and the school-year in New York.

South Tel Aviv was not an area we would frequent as a family. Distinguished by its proximity to the Central Bus Station – both the biggest bus terminal in the world and one of the most infamous urban planning disasters – the area is home to asylum seekers and migrant workers, many of whom who are transported there upon arriving to Israel.

Levinsky Park, only a few blocks long and wide, is a short walk away from the bus terminal. Walking home through the park with my sister Yael was consistently emotionally trying. People slept on and around playground constructs – huddled under plastic tarps to seek refuge from the rain – or just spent the day idling due to unemployment.

There is less homelessness now due to selective deportation, though the park remains the heart of the community of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The communities that share this contentious space are vastly different linguistically, nationally, and culturally, though coexist due to affordability and circumstance. These qualities were what drew us to live in the neighborhood when Yael and I moved to Tel Aviv for our college studies a couple of years ago.

Moreover, these qualities are what inspired ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective, to found the Garden Library in Levinsky Park in 2009, a beacon of hope amidst the often bleak landscape. A self-proclaimed “social-artistic urban community project,” the public library has helped transform the park, stitching together the disjointed, accidental community.

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Photo credits: Tanja Rochow, Levinsky Garden Library, and Yael Krevsky.
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Talia Krevsky is a former Idealist team member who went on to actualize her idealistic pursuits in the Middle East, where she recently completed her Masters in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is committed to contributing to the transformation, or evolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creatively and non-violently.

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Why I keep sending books to prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things books.

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Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)

I hate Wednesday.

I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.

When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.

Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.

The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.

Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.

We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.

“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”

While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.

Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.

“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”

The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.

Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.

A lot of letters.

For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.

The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.

What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.

How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.

Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.

Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.

20130609_NYC0165Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

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Try This! Team up with other literary organizations to pack a real punch

The idea

What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?

Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.

Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.

punch cardEver-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.

While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).

Why you might like to try this

  • Distributes your marketing efforts. With literary events like readings, there is sometimes a burnout effect that comes from inviting the same core group of followers again and again. Pooling your lists and inviting a bigger number of folks to begin with can help avoid this. Teaming up also lends a razzle dazzle effect to events and makes them really special—people love knowing that this is the literary event to go to.
  • Lightens logistical responsibilities. Nonprofits and small presses are usually strapped for staff time and have a lot to do besides organizing community events. By sharing the responsibilities of who does what, you can lessen the burden on all of the groups.
  • Increases fans and supporters. One of the big questions the members of LitPunch had in the beginning was if they were already sharing the same core group of supporters. They each sent out a survey to try and figure this out, and what they found was encouraging. “Most people were at least aware of the other organizations, but they definitely became more aware after we teamed up. It seems like most felt connected to one or two of the organizations, but few were circled into all five very strongly,” Chris says. He considers this one of the biggest successes of their coalition—that LitPunch really has exposed people in the community to new opportunities.

How you can replicate it

Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.

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Guests mingling at January’s LitPunch mixer.

1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.

2.Stay flexible.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.

3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.

4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.

This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”


Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at cjones@loft.org.

Rebecca Olson

 

Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.

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Marketing a cause? You might want to read Brains on Fire.

How do we build our list of email subscribers? How do we get Facebook users to ‘like’ our page?

Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements asks you to stop tweeting at people for a moment, stop obsessing about the numbers, and pose a completely different question: What do our biggest fans care about most, and how do we give them more of it?

Though this is clearly a book by and for marketers, there’s a lot of good stuff in here for almost anyone who wants to get people excited and build long-lasting change.

The book makes its point through a number of case studies from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds. The authors, who run a marketing firm of the same name, learned quite a bit about movement-building from working with Rage Against the Haze, a youth-led anti-smoking movement in South Carolina.

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Photo: RageAgainstTheHaze.com

They had been handed a tough job:

  • combat one of the highest rates of teen tobacco use in the country
  • …without publicly demonizing an industry that is a major contributor to the state’s economy
  • …and do it with a very small budget.

So what did they do? More important is what they didn’t do: they didn’t start brainstorming hip commercials or slogans. They didn’t bombard teens with lots of scary statistics about the dangers of smoking – statistics that had fallen on deaf ears for years. They started by meeting teens face-to-face and asking them for ideas.

What really matters to teens? Autonomy. Owning your self. The ‘grown-ups’ just needed to get out of the way. So the firm had the teens choose the title of their own movement. They designed their own swag: numbered dog tags they could wear and t-shirts that put an ironic spin on the state motto, “While I breathe, I hope.” They went to high school football games and talked to other kids where they already were. They changed the conversation from one about mortality to one about empowerment – choosing not to be controlled by big tobacco. And it worked so well that, even when the money ran out, the movement kept right on going. In just four years, with no major media campaign or new taxes on cigarettes, they decreased teen smoking rates by 16.9% – one of the biggest decreases in the nation.

The authors offer other cases, too, from a customer-led community at Fiskars to Love146, a movement to end child sex trafficking.

The bottom line? Find the people who care the most and give them more power. You can make them feel special just by giving them a little face time, a little inside knowledge, and the authority to make some real decisions. Scary? Yes. But a risk worth taking? Absolutely.

Want to read Brains on Fire? If you purchase the book through this Amazon link, a percentage of the proceeds will help power our work.

More book reviews: The Networked Nonprofit; Jobs That Matter; Brandraising

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Ideal to real: How to get books onto public buses?

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Every morning, Idealist staffer Amy Potthast reads books with her son on their 30-minute bus ride to his preschool.

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Experts say you should read with your kids 30 minutes a day. Photo by Khaleeka (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The bus route is long and circuitous, and travels through a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood full of families. Frequently other parents and their children board the bus, and Amy draws an attentive audience of kids who sit nearby and listen politely to the stories, looking at the book illustrations.

Amy keeps thinking that on long, family-populated buses like theirs, there should be milk crates at the front full of donated books for young riders and their parents to read on 20- to 30-minute bus rides.

She knows it’s a pipe dream, and realizes bus drivers may resist having to keeping up with books on the bus. In chatting with others, the main considerations seem to be:

1. Getting more parents on board in advance, including actual endorsements from and partnerships with groups such as the local PTAs, neighborhood associations, and Head Starts.

2. Working with drivers’ unions to get buy-in and to ensure that implementing such an idea wouldn’t impact the drivers’ ability to drive safely. The local transit authority is very sensitive to driver safety. They’re also careful with their public image.  If books caused children to misbehave in order to hear stories, the plan could backfire.

3. Placing the milk crates in a secure place is important: is there a way to use unused space that doesn’t compromise any seating or safety, and fastening the crates so they can’t slide around?

4. Building a strong grassroots organizing approach, bus-by-bus, with grassroots funding (e.g. private resources), including a pilot on a couple of lines first.

5. Determining policies regarding book borrowing and donation, then educating bus riders about the rules.

Amy would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you help her with some advice?

  • Do you know of any other projects that place free reading materials on buses?
  • What organizations should be included in getting the project off the ground?
  • Who might fund this kind of project?
  • What resistance should we be prepared to respond to?
  • Do you know of any research that supports the value of reading to kids?
  • What other considerations should Amy keep in mind?

Leave a comment below and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email julia at idealist.org.

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