The World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue 2012: Good; but paperless would be even better.

Lix and I recently received the hardcopy World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue in our mailbox, the second since we started co-sponsoring a Zambian child a little over a year ago. Though we largely ignored it the first time, this time around we sat down and went through it together, donating far more than we’d anticipated; partly because we sincerely wanted to help, and partly because we couldn’t bear to see the beautiful catalogue go to waste.

The World Vision catalogue we received resembled those commercial ones you often get in the mail or as newspaper supplements. At over forty(!) pages long, printed in full colour and on relatively heavy glossy paper, it doesn’t feel cheap; in fact, it makes you wonder for a moment whether the printing of the catalogue alone makes up most of World Vision’s marketing/communications budget (which in Singapore stands at 11.6%, as stated in the catalogue).

As soon as you get past the cover page however (which states that you can “choose from over 90 extraordinary gifts and bring cheer to some of the world’s poorest children”), and flip through the stories contained within, you won’t think of anything else but how you may be able to help.

Each item in the catalogue is presented in a similar fashion: a short, open-ended story written in the first person (as if the actual beneficiaries penned it), detailing a problem faced and its proposed solution, accompanied by one or more vivid photographs of World Vision beneficiaries and the things you can get to help them solve the problem.

(Noticed I said “open ended”? Well, it’s because the story has no ending: how the story ends is left to you — potential donor and protagonist — to decide: donate, and little Finne gets to eat; don’t, and she, along with the rest of her peers, starves.)

It’s a simple formula, but it works surprisingly well. By breaking down a problem of unimaginable scale into the individual level, and crafting tangible solutions to these smaller-scale problems, potential donors are made to feel empowered to make a real change in the world. Traditional methods, by contrast, often leave donors with little else but a vague sense of having dented the great wall of poverty with a penny. To whom would you rather give your $96 to: some random charity, or severely undernourished little Finne so that she can eat for a good half a year?

I don’t know about you, but little Finne’s not going hungry on my watch.

The catalogue’s a great idea, and for what it does it works extremely well (which explains why it has caught on so well among charities around the world). But remember how many pages I mentioned this catalogue was? That’s right: 40-plus, no-expense-spared pages. At the end of it all, my thoughts couldn’t help but return to that of how resource-hungry the catalogue was. Just a thought, but, at the risk of sounding too Year-2000-Dot-Com-Era-ish, couldn’t this catalogue have been digitised and put online?

The simple answer: yes.

A quick internet search showed that this catalogue could be found online in its entirety, so I was a tad puzzled that there wasn’t an option in the marketing material sent to me by World Vision on how I could “opt out” of receiving hardcopy editions in the future, and have the digital version sent to me instead. Having a postcard pointing me to the updated catalogue online would have worked as well.

But maybe I shouldn’t have been too puzzled about not receiving an option to opt out, as the online catalogue was, quite frankly, a rather disappointing experience. I was hoping for something more Web 2.0, something that’d make me think “it looks like an online shop” only that the items were for donation and not purchase. But what I found was that you either got the PDF/flash version of the catalogue that didn’t accept any online methods of payment, or you got the version that accepted online methods of payments but looked like it belonged to the 1990’s.

So here’s a thought: what if each catalogue item had its own fundraising page like that found on GIVE.sg or, another one of my favourite sites, Kickstarter.com? Maybe it wouldn’t work so well with the smaller ticket items like “three bowls of rice for a week”, but even these could be expanded to “three bowls of rice for a week for a village” to fit the “project” structure of these sites. The great thing about these types of fundraising sites is the tremendous amount of interaction they allow between fundraisers and donors/contributors (and among donors/contributors themselves as well) and the fact that as a donor you can see your contribution affect the “total contributions” on the page more or less immediately (again, the feeling of empowerment). I don’t know about you, but I’d think the experience would rival any hardcopy catalogue.

Adopting the gift catalogue idea from the commercial world was a great innovative step for charities, but it’s probably time it evolved. Online “catalogues” (which may or may take on the traditional “catalogue” form) would be a great place to start, not only reducing both costs and paper usage, but also possibly raising more funds by virtue of being more easily and widely distributed via social media and other traditional online means. Who knows, but in the not-too-distant-future you could well be browsing for gifts to send to impoverished Mongolian kids through your mobile device, and sharing with friends on Facebook that they should do the same.

On Finding Work We Love

I once saw a mattress ad that argued that choosing the right mattress was the most important life choice you’d have to make after choosing a spouse. The basic premise of that ad was that since you’d be spending a third of your life sleeping, splurging on a good mattress would be money well spent, almost as good as that of splurging on your spouse (just ask my fiancee).

Though I do not agree that you necessarily have to spend good money for a good night’s sleep, it’s certainly good sense to focus on areas of your life you spend your most time on doing — what is one’s life but the making of choices regarding what we do with our time? Time, it can be said, is life.

For most of us, few other things take up as much as time as work does. The funny thing about work is that even though most of us know it takes up “a lot” of time, we often underestimate just how much time we give to our work. Many of us only think about the official hours we clock on the job, forgetting to take into account the time needed to prepare ourselves for work; for the commute to and from our place of work; for the necessary “unwinding” after a hard day’s work; and the time to “get away” from “it all” through vacations, with “it all” often meaning the distress we feel because of work.

How important, then, is it for us to  find work we love and enjoy, work we feel good about? If we find work “bad”, life is likely to be the same.

It is not uncommon to see people take up a job because of slightly better pay or because some company made them an offer first, not because it gave them a better chance to do more meaningful work or what they loved. After spending some time at the job, many of these people may find that they actually dislike what they do, but continue grinding it out day after day because of apathy and fear. Hey, I may hate this job, but at least I know I how much I hate it. Other jobs may be even worse!

Always thinking about whether a change would be better or worse, we decide to take our chances at our current jobs because at least we know what to expect.

It’s like the story the man who dropped his keys in the dark. A passerby approached the man after seeing him searching frantically under a streetlamp and offered to help, asking him where he’d dropped the keys. The man pointed to an unlit portion of the street and said, “over there.” Curious, the passerby asked the man why he was searching under the streetlamp if he hadn’t dropped his keys there, and the man replied, “because at least here I can see what I’m searching for.”

How many of us are tolerating “good enough” jobs we already know too much about, hoping someday, against all odds, the meaning, fun, and enjoyment they sought would suddenly turn up? Should we not expect out of work as much as work expects out of us?

On Ignorance and Information Search

I’m not a person who takes not knowing lightly.

If someone asks me a question and I’m unable to find the answer off the top of my head, chances are good that within the next few minutes, armed with a computer and a good internet connection, I’ll find the answer to that question. Of course this is assuming it’s a question that intrigues me enough for me to do so (but then again simply not knowing something often intrigues me enough to push me to find its answer).

I find ignorance a chosen state; in general, people do not not know something not because they’re stupid, but because they’ve never had a need or want to find out what that something is. Motivation’s seriously understated in education. Teach a man to fish, and if he’s not hungry he may not learn. Teach a man hungry to learn to fish, well, that’s another story.

For me it’s not so important to remember any of the actual facts that I’ve looked up as much as it is knowing how to look up that fact in the first place. For example, I have no idea what’s pi to its 8th decimal, but I do know that if I searched for pi in Google or Bing I’d be able to find out (it’s 3.14159265).

I can think of at least two reasons for placing teaching how to learn and search for information before teaching facts (something most schools are only too guilty of).

Firstly, information search is so much faster and vastly improved now with the advent of the internet and search engines like Google, making the skill of remembering lots of facts redundant — you don’t need to remember a fact you only need to use once or twice as searching it up may well be faster than the time it takes to burn it into memory; and secondly, because many facts in life are dynamic and may have changed since you first learned it (e.g. when I was in school Singapore’s population was at about 3.3 million; it’s over 4 million now, and may have changed by the time you read this).

I’ve always harboured a slight distrust of people who utter the words “I don’t know”, and will always be wondering at the back of my mind whether or not that person had attempted to find an answer. I urge you to never use those words unless absolutely necessary (e.g. if your child asks you what your neighbours were doing in the back of that shaking car). If possible, always answer a question to which you don’t know the answer to with a “I’ll find out” or “I’ll get back to you on that”. And do.

As for what WERE the neighbours doing… I’ll get back to you on that.