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A Classic Heartwarming Story, Retold

The parable below is supposed to celebrate the perseverance and nobility of the non-profit sector.  But, in truth, it shows how non-profits can sometimes unfortunately think with the heart instead of the brain.

Here goes.

“Two people walk along a beach and suddenly come upon thousands of starfish washed up by the tide. The first person cries in dismay and rushes about, picking up one starfish at a time and desperately flinging it back in the water.  The second person says, “Hey, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but saving one at a time isn’t going to matter.”

The first person looks back and replies indignantly, “It matters to this starfish.”

Appears to be a story of heroic idealism, right?   Many people think so, and we at Altruist Partners enthusiastically but respectfully disagree with every single last one of them.   This story is a warning.  A warning about how well meaning people can react with panic and haste to a big challenge and squander their effort.  In the face of death and destruction, it is a seductive, comforting delusion to think symbolic efforts noble.

In truth, one does not solve large problems by playing the headless chicken.  We must be courageous, analytical, focused, smart, and disciplined.  Passionate for change, yes, but not hasty and disorganized.

So let’s tell the story our way.

In our new-and-improved version, the second person replies: “There is a much better way to help these vulnerable creatures.  Let’s build a device that collects all the starfish and puts them all back.  Here is my business plan.  It has a complete, actionable vision for modifying golf ball retrievers, the kind you see at driving ranges, and making them into starfish rescue machines.  I’ve also got a budget projection and a list of prospective investors.  So let’s build 1,000 starfish rescue machines, one for every major beach.  We will also hire lookouts, drivers and maintenance staff, and run the entire operation with a best-practices enterprise, funded by annual gifts and earned income from a licensing program and consulting services.  When we are done, this problem will never exist again, ever.  Care to join me?”

That is the type of altruism that the sector should be promoting– serious, scalable, world-fixing.  The work of the sector is too important.

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