The World Needs More Rose Greenes

The World Needs More Rose Greenes

An old friend of mine named Rose Greene passed away from cancer last week. It’s a great loss to the domain of possibility. 

I originally developed the concept of the AIDSRide — an epic, multi-day, 4-figure pledge journey — for Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, but they didn’t feel it was for them at the time. It sat on the shelf for a year or so until Torie Osborn hired me to help with the fundraising for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center. In January of 1993 I saw the movie, “Alive” and it changed my life. It reminded me of the power of doing the impossible. Of the human hunger to go after the unreasonable result. I decided immediately that it was time to make the AIDSRide happen and the next Monday my team and I began researching how to move, feed, house, shower and otherwise care for hundreds or thousands of people in the outdoors over the course of a week. And how to get them to agree to do it in the first place.

We had a deck for the concept, the cover of which read, “The road from San Francisco to Los Angeles is paved with $600,000,” which was what we thought it could net the first time around. When the idea was ready, I asked myself, “Who will have the vision to really get this?” That’s where Rose Greene came in — a woman diminutive in inches and enormous in spirit — an investment manager who sat on the board of the Center and with whom I had become friends while we were raising  money for the Center’s capital campaign together. I took her out for lunch in Hollywood and explained the idea to her. She got it, and she and Ed Gould, the board chair at the time, helped to shepherd it through board approval to get the $50,000 in risk capital we needed to launch it.

At the critical board meeting, one board member made a big case for studying it first, before leaping into any commitment. You know the type. Makes covering your ass sound like absolute saintly virtue and integrity. But Rose had a strong entrepreneurial business sense about her. And she knew that the way you study something that has never been done before is singular and simple: you do it.

If Walt Disney had been asked to study the prospects for Disneyland before building it, Anaheim would still be a sea of orange trees. There was no way of knowing whether people would fly from around the world and pay big money to go to something called a “theme park” unless you actually built it. No way to know if people would buy Teslas until they could actually sit in and test drive one. No way to see if people would buy an iPhone until they were actually for sale. And there was no way to know if hundreds, and eventually hundreds of thousands of people would ride their bicycles and walk arduous distances, sleep in tents, and raise hundreds of millions of dollars from their friends for the causes that had most broken their hearts unless you actually did it.

As of today the multi-day pledge event concept that I showed to Rose that day in the late winter of 1993 has raised in excess of $2 billion for causes from AIDS to breast cancer to pediatric cancer, suicide prevention and more.  

If Rose Green had not been there, I’m not sure it ever would have happened, at least not at that moment or for that organization. She understood the importance of taking a risk, and the rest of the board took comfort in her confidence.

For all of the thought leadership that has been proffered about social change and risk since 1993, not too much has changed. Peoples’ attitudes toward risk is mostly still, “Sure, I’ll take a risk, so long as I know it’s all going to work out.”

But that is not the nature of risk. Rose Greene understood that, before the term “social enterprise” ever even really existed. She was a mensch. A kindred spirit. Authentic. Full of real integrity and a sense of possibility. She loved life and living.

And damned if she didn’t actually ride the whole 575 miles with us in that very first AIDSRide. 

By the way, it didn’t net the $600,000 we had projected. 

It netted $1,013,000.

The world needs more Rose Greenes.

The Sydney Opera House: The Power of Ridiculous

The Sydney Opera House: The Power of Ridiculous

I was in Australia week before last to give three speeches and lead the Bolder Board Training in Brisbane, which was wonderful. We now have 100 new Australian nonprofit board members committed to being bold!

Since the trip I cannot get the Sydney Opera House out of my mind. The reason I cannot, after having seen it and toured it, is because the idea to build it was utterly ridiculous. The architect who designed it — Jørn Utzon — was an unknown 38 year-old Dane when his entry was announced as the winner in an international competition to build a great opera house for Sydney. His vision for a "sculptural, curved building on the Harbour" broke radically with the linear shapes of modernist architecture. And here’s the thing: in the 1960s, they had no idea how to build it. You know those iconic shells or sails that define it? The challenge of how to build them confounded the engineers working on it for years, even after the foundation had been poured! Imagine pouring a foundation for a building you don’t yet know how to build!

Pouring that foundation, without knowing how to build the building, was a commitment - a declaration of possibility. It was impossible, but their commitment to it transformed it into reality. It now not only defines that city, but in many ways that nation.

Imagine if it had never been built. Imagine if some smart expert or group of experts put a stop to it because of its ridiculous shape, or the imprudence of trying to build something that they didn’t know how to build. Imagine if people of lesser constitutions had been in charge.

If you’re not being ridiculous, you’re not exploring your organization’s true potential. Everything in the world that makes us go, “Wow,” was born of some absurd human being with a ridiculous, impossible idea — from the Eiffel Tower to landing on the moon to the idea of America herself. We are taught in the nonprofit sector that we must have data on how it’s been done in the past. Yet we need to achieve things that have never before been achieved! They cannot be found in the past! We are taught — especially in the nonprofit sector — that prudence is sophistication. That practicality is wisdom. The opposite is true. The most sophisticated things I’ve ever seen in my life - the most intelligent solutions to the greatest technical challenges in history — all came from someone being utterly ridiculous. Ridiculous is what really tests us. Stretches us. Forces us to use the full measures of our intelligence, creativity, fortitude and strength. 

Anything less than ridiculous and our true potential for intelligence, creativity, strength and fortitude gets left on the table, never to see the light of day.

Ridiculous is the real prudence.

Resist the temptation to be safe, cautious and normal. Resist it in all things. Resist it with every fiber of your being. Peoples’ lives are at stake in the work of the nonprofit sector. If ever something called on us to try a ridiculously new way of doing things, those peoples’ lives are it.