YHC Kick Off Event: Susan Jacoby

August 31st, 2013 View Comments »

If you are in New Haven, I hope you can join for this event.  Alas, I will miss it although have been working to help organize.  Grateful that Susan Jacoby agreed to come speak.

On Tuesday, September 10th at 7:00 PM, the Yale Humanist Community will host Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Susan Jacoby (FreethinkersThe Great Agnostic) for a lecture on how secular ethics bear on public policy and everyday life.Jacoby will lecture in K207 in Kirtland Hall, the Psychology Department, at 2 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, CT. Following her talk, Jacoby will take questions and sign copies of her books, some of which will be available for purchase from the Yale Bookstore. There will also be a small reception to follow, with food and drink available for guests.

This event will be the first for the recently established Yale Humanist Community (YHC), an organization dedicated to developing, supporting, and growing a diverse community of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at Yale and beyond. Information about future YHC events and affiliated Yale student clubs will be available to attendees, as will members of our Board of Directors and our staff members Chris Stedman (Coordinator of Humanist Life) and Paul Chiariello (Director of Operations). This event is free and open to the public, and all are welcome. We hope to see you there!

The Overhead Myth

August 21st, 2013 View Comments »

I was pleased to see that arguments like Dan Pallotta‘s are having an impact.  One of his key points is that he makes is that judging a charity mainly or only by “overhead percentage” or “amount of my money that goes to the cause” is dangerous, incorrect and damaging.

Just in the past few months, three of the most respected charity “watchdogs” or third-party evaluators have endorsed this concept, too.  They have launched a website and a campaign to spread the word.  They call it the Overhead Myth.  In their words:

In a historic move, the leaders of the country’s three leading sources of information on nonprofits – GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance – penned an open letter to the donors of America denouncing the “overhead ratio” as a valid indicator of nonprofit performance.

The letter, signed by all three organization’s CEOs, marks the beginning of a campaign to correct the common misconception that the percentage of charity’s expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is, on its own, an appropriate metric to evaluate when assessing a charity’s worthiness and efficiency. The nonprofit sector, which all three organizations provide information to and about, has too often erroneously focused on overhead over the past few decades, which has starved nonprofits from investing in themselves as enterprises and created what the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”

And it continues in their open letter: Overhead Myth Letter. [PDF]

Please help spread the word.

Unleashing the Humanitarian Sector

August 21st, 2013 View Comments »

truly giving charities the freedom to act like businesses

I was at time inspired and discouraged by reading Dan Pallotta’s two books on what’s wrong with the humanitarian (nonprofit if you prefer) sector.  I sat down to write a book review although found that Steve MacLaughlin had done a great job already.  So check that out. Or watch Pallotta’s TED Talk below.

Charity Case Cover

To summarize, the 5 key things we get wrong in thinking about the nonprofit sector are:

1. Compensation: We let the for-profit sector pay people a competitive wage based on the value of what they produce. But we don’t want people making money in charity.
2. Advertising and Marketing: We let business advertise until the last dollar no longer produces any value. But we don’t like to see charitable donations spent on advertising.
3. Risk Taking in Pursuit of New Donors: It’s OK for a big budget movie or new product to flop. But if a $5 million charity walk doesn’t show a 75% profit in the first year, then it’s considered suspect.
4. Time Horizon: Companies can go years without returning any money to investors in the interest of a long-term goal. But if a charity has a long-term goal that doesn’t show short-term results, then it’s scandalous.
5. Profit: Business can offer profits to attract investment capital and there’s an entire ecosystem around funding new ventures. But there’s no such vehicle for a charity and they are left starved for growth capital.

I was particularly struck by #5.  How can we create an equity-like market for humanitarian causes?  How can someone put up risk capital and earn some economic reward for taking risk to fund new projects, startup, transistion or capital needs for for a non-stock corporation especially one considered a 501c3.  Every idea I kept coming up with lead back to dubious legal grounds.  Under current law, in order to maintain the tax exempt status (and realistically to be able to raise donations as for-profits that ask for donations may be accused of fraud), “no part of the net income may inure to the benefit of any private individual”.

The closest I’ve found to working around this is Pay for Success or Performance Bonds championed by the like of Third Sector Capital.  Do you know of any other models like this?  Would love to hear about them.

Pallota does suggest in Charity Case that by law we create a new category called a for profit foundation.  It would be allowed to solicit donations and funnel them only to 501c3s.  It would be able to make a profit (pay taxes on it) and distribute to shareholders.  I think it is a great idea and would love to help make it happen.  Any pointers to resources on this or people working on this topic, please let me know.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pallota’s plan to change the country’s view on charities, check out the Charity Defense Council.

Celebrating Inside Out New Haven

August 18th, 2013 View Comments »

a public art project of and by the community

What started an idea inspired by JR’s Inside Out Project, a Sunday planning session with Ben Berkowitz and then a simple blog post, grew into a movement, a living piece of art and a community.

photo from Chris Randall

Here was the pitch we gave:

A multi-lane freeway divides what once was one neighborhood: barren concrete cuts across State at Bradley and Humphrey at State in New Haven, CT.Over the past few years, with the help of URI, we have cleaned-up, planted trees and painted fences. Inspired by the Inside Out Project, now it is time to take one more step to bring the neighborhood closer together.Let’s get to know each others faces. Inside Out #NHV seeks to post ~200 portraits of the people who live here.We will cover the overpasses with huge portraits of our actual neighbors. No models need apply. And we’re doing this with local money and local photographers.

And did people respond! Before we were done we had: over 500 people join our Facebook group, 215+ people donate money, been covered at least a dozen times in the media, and official support from State of Connecticut and the City of New Haven.

We were interested in creating public art and doing it in a way that involved and built community. Going door to door in the area to pass out flyers advertising our various photo-shoots was a another method for us. The photographers also volunteered their time and created quite the scene filling the sidewalks of the very underpasses we planned to transform.

We choose to raise money from individuals as we wanted each piece of this project to include the community. We also were curious to use Kickstarter for a project and so this one seemed perfect fit. When Ben took to social media for an hours long real-time social media fundraising session, the donors really rolled in.

More important than that we had such a positive response from volunteers willing to help hang the photographs once they were printed. People kept showing up with buckets of wheatpaste they cooked after work.

The passion of the volunteers was so great that when the project was struck by graffiti, the outpouring of support was incredible and immediate. Before Ben and I could declare an “official” response from the “leadership”, volunteers choose to start repairing the photos themselves. I was blown away!

The New Haven Independent had a pretty good wrap up of our efforts. I think most folks involved were pleased with our success.And it was pretty cool that we even briefly captured the attention of the Whitehouse.

I did hear from a few people that they were disappointed that the art did not last longer. Given that it was paper portraits, I was not expecting it to withstand the elements very long. To me part of the art was the passing nature of the work. It was a moment to be experienced.

That said in the end, some of the photos were brought inside for an official art show at Creative Arts Workshop. Go figure! And you can re-live it through photos on I Love New Haven’s two different pages hereand here, or via a video John Belanger posted on on Vimeo.

Inside Out #nhv from John Belanger on Vimeo.

Many thanks to all our backers and volunteers including Chris Randall and many others. We also had great support from Colleen and Chris from URI. We couldn’t have done it without all of you. Thank you!

Creating a Humanist Community at Yale

August 18th, 2013 View Comments »

meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and assembly without superstition and dogma

For the past year or so, I’ve been working to help create a Humanist Community at Yale University. As an alum living in New Haven, I feel connected to the university and wanted to contribute in another way. After founding the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, helping start the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, starting companies in town, and building community via projects like scavenger hunt Cluefest and collaborative public art Inside Out #NHV, I was ready for another project.

What is a Humanist Community, you ask? As a shorthand, you can think of it as the key elements of a church or religion without reference to the supernatural and with much less dogma. I’m talking about weaving together things like meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and regular assembly without the superstition or dogma.

Yale students have groups like Yale Humanist Society and the Open Party. Our goal is to support their work and create a larger umbrella and broader community that includes faculty, staff, students, alums, family and others.

Our efforts were briefly profiled in the Yale Alumni Magazine and we’ve made enough progress now that I would like to share the news about a few important milestones:

  • Key Staff: Chris Stedman. I am very pleased that Chris has joined our effort. His background as Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard’s Humanist Community plus his experience with interfaith and service projects making him well suited for the effort here. For now he is part-time although I hope that will grow into more. I am grateful for the support of Greg Epstein of Humanist Community at Harvard as Chris still works the rest of the time for Greg.
  • Director of Operations: Paul Chiariello. Paul has co-founded this effort with me and has done so much to create the organization. His relationship from being a recent grad student at Yale, his experience with Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy and his willingness to take action have all been very helpful. Paul is officially our first staff member and we’ve got payroll up and running! Paul is also helping to start Camp Quest New England which will be right here in Connecticut. He is their first Program Director and develop their Ethics and Humanism Curric.
  • Connections with Broader Community. We have fleshed out or board with faculty members, student representation, community members and those with connections to the broader humanist movement. More details to be announced on our website soon. Also, we’ve officially become a chapter of the American Humanist Association and have connections with the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association.
  • Applied for Formal Affiliation with Yale. We’re working to be formally recognized by Yale’s official Chaplin and be part of Yale’s Religious Ministries. Many conversations and much thought has gone into this so we’re hopeful although it is not yet complete. Perhaps in the next few months we should have official word on our application.

Have questions? Wanna get involved or help? Please let me know. Or check out the website at www.yalehumanists.com.

Startup Weekend New Haven 2012 Round Up

November 11th, 2012 View Comments »

Exciting to see a second sold-out year of Startup Weekend in downtown New Haven. The same power-packed 54-hour intensive session of dreaming, testing and doing. The new thing in 2012 was that sit was supported by The Grid New Haven. Still located at The Grove for the working part. The pitches took place in Gateway Community College’s shining new facility. If you missed it, here is my round up of the teams that pitched:

FISTS Inc (Financial Instrument Security Technology Services)
Kevin Ewing pitched on behalf of this check-fraud technology service company for use by merchants at point-of-sale. Competing with Certegy and TeleCheck who they say focus on MICR line (routing number, account number and check number). FISTS competitive differentiater is lower pricing (flat fee rather than %-based) and patent-pending technology that uses more data including almost everything on the check including address, signature, fraction number matches RTN, customer information, etc., not just account number.

Aasta Frascati-Robinson pitched for ed tech nonprofit that is focused on creating an augment-reality mobile app for the study of history for K12. Teachers can create their own curriculum or edit/reuse lessons built by others.

A Good First Step (2nd Place)
A lead referral service for local attorneys with free information as marketing plan. Content includes video and copy for answers to basic questions. Also plan to offer sponsored content for a fee in addition to selling leads. Free for purchasers of legal services. The team did surveys of residents and lawyers, filmed first content and first version of the website over the weekend.

Task management, inventory and financial management/forecasting SaaS business for small businesses. The example used in the pitch is a solo carpenter that allows data entry on the job of customer information, materials order and task information. MyBee is focused on creating one system that replaces need for the many systems that would normally be found in separate packages (Salesforce, BaseCamp, Intuit, InDinero, etc.). Goal is to price lower than competitors.

The company creates a platform on web and mobile with real-time social media for use at live events, radio or presentations. Allows for 2-way communication from the crowd to each other and to the presenter. More structured than Twitter to allow for aggregation of sentiment from users. Sold to radio stations, if I understood directly.

Mobile app for meeting people and managing contact information for events. Individuals who attend an event enter a code to unlock the ability to see public contact info from any at the event. Also, allows for contact via the app for those that do not want to share the contact info. The customer is the event organizer who pays per attendee. Working mobile app built from scratch over the weekend! True startup weekend spirit.

Musicians Vault (3rd Place)
Downloadable app for musicians to meet, collaborate (in composing and recording? new work) and promote their work once complete. Revenue from advertising, iTunes label model (get a cut of song sold) and in app purchases of music, as well. I’m not familiar with the competitive landscape here and they did not spend much time on it.

Good Game Network
Online video/computer game wagering platform. Think you can beat someone else on Xbox live? You can bet $10 on it and GGN gets a $1 cut. Or you can earn points like airline miles or hotel points rather than cash. If legal, surprised that there is not a clear market leader already?

Snag It Deals (1st Place)
“The Kayak.com of deal websites.” Consumer-oriented alerting service for when a particular product comes up for sale on deal websites. Revenue expected from affiliate model. Also, great that they built a first version of the system over the weekend where you text in keywords. At scale by collecting purchase intent, there are marketing and analytic opportunities.

Building Habits

November 4th, 2012 View Comments »

Habits are experiencing a resurgence.  From at least as far back as Aristotle, people have seen virtue or character as an extension of the right habits.  More recently books like Switch and the Power of Habit, habit are getting bestseller status in the bookstore.  And they offer various ideas.

But we all know that building new habits is hard.


One Yalie startup that helps you tackle the challenge is Stickk.  Brought to you by two Yale professors Ian Ayres and Dean Karlan who teamed up with Yale student Jordan Goldberg (now CEO).  They teamed up to to harness the power of the behavioral economics concept of commitment contracts to help you change.  You can put money or social shame/praise on the line to motivate you to make or break a habit in the future.  Lots of flexibility and power to the model. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to do so.


More recently, I’ve been using the mobile app from Lift. Wow, that has made an impact!   For example, I have flossed my teeth 50 days in a row.  While that may seem like a small feat, I never would have gone that long before using Lift.  And they say flossing is supposed to have a positive impact on fighting heart disease (among other more obvious benefits for your mouth).
The app dominates with its simplicity.  You can add any habit others use (like Exercise or Drink More Water).  Then you can check off the habit up to once per day.  And it tracks your consitency and provides positive re-inforcement via email and app for your success.  Very simple.  And I think the power comes from the simplicity in two key ways:
  1. Not SMART.  Yes, I know some of you are thinking that these habits make poor goals as they are not measurable and may lack other SMART characteristics.  That’s right, you don’t have to count how many pushups you did, just that you did the habit Pushups.  For me, I check off if I did one of a habit that could be repeated.  (Follows the method from book One Small Step Can Change Your Life where beginning matters most of all.)   The first pushup done almost every day is way more important than not tracking or skipping more days because the goal is too high.
  2. Positive Only.  Also, the app is designed only to give you positive encouraging re-inforcement.  You get a daily email summary with the number of habits you completed and no emphasis at all on what you missed.  Keeps me engaged and pushing towards higher numbers without creating negative emotions or connotations in my animal self (the Elephant) about not achieving.  I think this is key.
I’m curious to see if people begin to use Lift as a social movement platform. For example, if you want your supporters to do something on a daily basis to spread the word, or recognize your movement, do you build a habit in Lift and point people to it? That would probably only happen if there are already a lot of users. Maybe one day.

How do you build habits?

Inside Out #NHV and What’s Next

November 4th, 2012 View Comments »

Inside Out #NHV started out as just an idea.

We took pictures and we posed for pictures. a face of inside out

We raised money and we gave money.

We printed massive posters and we sorted them out.

We cooked buckets of wheatpaste. And then we cooked some more.

We posted the posters night after night.

We repaired them again and again.

completed inside out project at bradley and state

completed project: one side of state at bradley

power washing inside out nhv

clean up: power washing the portraits off the walls

We had an art opening on the street.

And then we had a clean up.  (With power washing!)

I am proud of what all the volunteers accomplished.  Totally amazed that the idea grew beyond the original organizers and was really embraced by many as their own. Thank you!

With the success of this public art project in building communitty, creating fun and spreading art, many are asking what is next?  I’m curious for your ideas.  Another outgrowth was an experiment at SeeClickFix with crowd funding repairs or civic improvements.  It’s called SeeClickFund.

Valerie Rose Belanger brought up one that I’m excited about although I’m not sure it scales to more than one of the massive concrete walls.  She proposed bringing New Orleans’s Before I Die to New Haven.  Come to PechaKucha night Wed to learn more.

And what else should we do?

Open Personal Financial Data: How The Government Can Enable Innovation

October 24th, 2012 View Comments »

Sophie Raseman, US Treasury Director for Smart Disclosure (and fellow Yalie), challenged the audience at Money 2020 to invent the next GPS or NOAA of personal finance. What does that mean? Well, she went on to explain that both location data and weather data are published by the US government for personal and commercial reuse. Each has fueled a ton of innovation and value ($90bil+/yr and $30bil+/yr respectively). Wow!

And what is key, for example with GPS, is that while the first generation solutions may “only” be slightly better versions of the maps, it get better. The next generation is allowing innovation like the self-driving car which has clearly a whole different level of value. (She credits Tim O’Rielly with this insight.)

So, the question is what data set could the US government make available to enable a similar level of innovation in personal finance?

I think it is interesting to note that both the examples that Sophie gave were initially big projects to create a system for collecting/creating the data before it could be distributed. I think that there may be opportunities with data sets that the government already has that could cost at lot less to prepare for distribution. I’m guessing that there are quite a few that could be done with some IT work that is much less expensive than launching satellites or weather balloons.

The first idea that came to mind for me was IRS tax return data. The most relevant financial data set to me is my own. I believe that many people do not create a forward looking budget because they don’t have enough categorized information about the past. One of the big barriers to gathering the data is doing the work of data entry. (Witness the rise of PFMs such as Mint, etc.)

Here’s how it would work: when you login into your favorite PFM on the web, you’ll still be able to see the financial data from your financial institution accounts. You’ll also have an option to link your IRS data. Upon selection, it would redirect you to a IRS website that would authorize the access of that app to your tax return data for a fixed time and potentially only for certain fields. The authorization code could be a combination of taxID and AGI for last year, date of birth and/or address data. Then you would end the process back on the PFM site that would be better updated with a richer dataset to provide recommendations on budgeting, future savings and/or missed tax planning opportunities.

Anther example: you are applying for a loan online and are redirected to the IRS website for verification of income and/or identity. I’m sure you can think of others.

We’re living in a world where consumers increasingly expect applications to integrate with each other and conveniently share data. And the federal government is embracing the concept of individuals owning their data (see the VA Blue Button project to allow for transportability of digital medical records).

There is even at least one precedent for this type of individual tax data sharing. For example, the Department of Education is working with the IRS to retrieve tax data on families applying for federal financial aid applications. The FAFSA website links you over to the IRS website to authorize the sharing of the information between federal departments. (BTW, anyone who has used it I’m curious to hear any more details on the user experience.)

On a related note, bank and other financial service providers have a lot of data on how people spend money and so it would be even better if there was a clearly defined standard for publishing and sharing banking data for use with budgeting. So, while not a government dataset, there could be a Treasury supported effort to create that data standard.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have these ideas although unclear to me if anyone is working on them? Is now the time? Does anyone know how far back the IRS has each person’s tax data in electronic form? Is it only available for those that filed electronically and any who filed on paper are on microfiche?

What other ideas do you have for datasets? Share them here or on Twitter #financedata.

Reasons to Love New Haven

April 21st, 2012 View Comments »

New Haven turns 375 years old next year. A fun way to celebrate and build the excitement is to tweet daily a reason to love New Haven. We started when there were 375 days to go.

Want to join in? Hashtag is #375.