- Thomas Paine
At a time when American independence was still undecided, Paine published his infamous 48-page pamphlet called Common Sense and with it moved thousands of everyday citizens closer to freedom from British rule. The pamphlet was one of the most influential of the revolutionary era. It spread beyond wildest expectations, doing something like the 18th-century equivalent of tweeting across the colonies. It was also an enormous financial success, selling 120,000 copies in the first three months, going through twenty-five editions and selling 500,000 copies in the first year alone. Paine was a master of the social media of his time, but because his ideas would have gotten him executed for treason, he wrote Common Sense anonymously. In its wake, had he wanted to he could have stolen away to his comfortable home in Greenwich Village to spend his royalties and enjoy life in anonymous splendor. But that was not his calling. Instead, he did something worthy of historical awe. He donated his royalties to George Washington’s Continental Army, reportedly saying: "As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author."
Paine's influence was outdone only by his moral fortitude. One could argue that his contribution to the Continental Army was both a brilliant bit of cause marketing (promoting his honor through philanthropy) and one of the greatest investments of all time, yielding centuries of liberty, growth and prosperity for millions of people. For me, he serves as a model citizen, standing for what he believes, using his influence to move others to action and then forgoing short-term gain in order to ensure long-term upside. This model served man and country well in the case of Thomas Paine. His was surely not the business of little minds.
Fast forward to the year 2009. Today. Now.
Another great mind has emerged on the political landscape, a master of social media who sways thousands with his simple and bold message and his sermon-like style. Indeed, Barack Obama has inspired a generation of people with his clear and hopeful vision for our country and he has done so by communicating directly to the people. His micro-contribution campaign success and his ability to harness YouTube are, like Paine's pamphlet, case studies in social media, what some could call election 2.0. But the similarity does not end there. What many people find most compelling about Obama, including me, is his Paine-like insistence that we must stand up to our current challenges not grudgingly, but gladly, with courage. It is these moments that have given me goose bumps during his speeches, like during his inauguration when he summoned the "New Era of Responsibility" and said: "what is required now is a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task." We must seize our duties gladly. This is surely the stuff of Thomas Paine.
If we view the world through a Painsian lens, we can spot examples of those who stand up to challenges gladly and those who shrink from them. Ultimately and perhaps urgently, which way the scale tilts could determine the fate of this country and, perhaps, the world. This is why I watch with such interest the debate over the stimulus package. The investments we make today will ultimately reflect our willingness to face challenges with fortitude or to shrink from them. Billions will get lost in the gordian financial mess to cover credit swaps and narrow interests, or billions will stimulate education, innovations in health care and a green revolution. Fear will compel us to focus on short-term market losses and gains or courage will compel us to look to the future prosperity and health of our nation and the planet. We will invest the way Paine did or we will invest the way Thain did. To my mind, it's pretty much that simple.
Of course, if I had my way, it would be game over and we'd all grin and bear it as we forge ahead in the spirit of responsibility, like Shackleton's men on the glacier or the small band of Washington's men huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. We have built AngelPoints with this single purpose: to tilt the scale and play a part in the new era of responsibility that is required of us all. If Paine could move thousands with a short-stack of paper, then surely we can move millions with the use of the web and through the leadership of the world's best companies. To be sure, a growing majority of the population and an expanding fleet of companies are making tangible investments in the new era of responsibility. Our exceptional growth over the past eight years is a testament to that good news. But more than a handful are not yet on board and some are even reversing their stance at this very moment. On the same day that Bank of America executives jetted to New York to refute Cuomo's inquest into $3 billion in suspicious bonuses funded by you and me, the bank was eliminating the position of a good friend of mine, Bob Mandala, VP of Team Bank of America, the unassuming but passionate man behind their award-winning employee volunteer program, which has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to serve their communities and put buckets of sweat behind the promise of being the so-called "bank of opportunity." Just last week, one of the largest producers of food in the world, operating in 67 countries, employing over 150,000 people, slashed and burned over three years of effort to take its employee community engagement program global. No longer will this company have the opportunity to leverage its enormous sphere of influence to spread organic agricultural practices to millions of farmers and students. Gone in an instant. Done.
Amidst the economic meltdown, when executives feel the heat of battle, it's not always obvious to redouble investments in programs that don't produce immediate profit. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't obvious to the average business owner in 1776 that they should put their money on a boy who chopped down a cherry tree and then defeated the British empire.
I recently read a story that John F. Kennedy liked to tell, about an early-20th-century French marshal named Hubert Lyautey. As the story goes, one day Lyautey says to his gardener, "Could you plant a tree?" The gardener says back, "Come on, it’s going to take 50 years before you see anything out of that tree." The marshal looks the guy in the eye and says, "It’s going to take 50 years? Really? Then plant it this morning."
The corollary to Paine's quote above is that it's the business of big minds to grow. We've seen dozens of companies that are growing amid the gloom, increasing their investments in responsibility at this critical time. Companies like Campbell's, Travelers, Wells Fargo, Deloitte, GE -- these are companies that are gathering strength in distress. While these companies are suffering bumps and bruises through tough times like everyone else, I have no doubt about their long-term success. And for individuals who are suffering set-backs, the question of how we invest our money at this critical time will surely tip the scale. I can only hope that there is a large number of modern-day Thomas Paines out there. The battle has just begun.