What is the proper response to life-long lagniappe?

I’ve got family on my side and my wife’s side in rural America. When I tell them that my main business is representing healthcare organizations and governments in real estate lease negotiations, I can tell what they’re thinking: You really get paid for that?

We take it for granted, but commercial real estate brokerage is a great business. It isn’t very capital intensive. There’s rarely pressure on commissions, everyone (usually) understands the model and it is (almost) infinitely scalable.

As an SIOR, a leader in the market, and business owner, what is the proper response to that? One option is to be thankful to live in a time and place where this business is possible. Another is to milk all you can out of a good situation. A third is to look for opportunities to share some good fortune through charitable giving.

I’d like to propose a few other options that perhaps hadn’t occurred to you—at least initially. I’d like to propose using our gifts within the community, within our organizations and within our households.

Your Community. ISIS, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, weak political options… I don’t have to look far to find something in this world that feels broken. The cocoon of success in our end of town is only so thick and requires a significant amount of concentration to maintain.

The fact is that no matter what market you’re in, people living seven miles away are experiencing an entirely different kind of America. There’s a complete breakdown in the fabric of neighborhoods, lack of leadership and systemic poverty that is working day and night to ensure its place for generations.

On our own, no commercial real estate firm is equipped to tackle something like this. What seems straight forward (let’s get them a park, or build some Habitat houses or donate to some after school programs) is really complex and requires specialized expertise in order to avoid doing further harm.

I’m not good enough to understand how to help without hurting, but an organization found me that is. Focused Community Strategies (www.fcsministries.org) tackles poverty one neighborhood at a time. Beginning with a Flourishing Neighborhood Index (FNI), they rate the neighborhood on eight data points:

  1. Sense of Place,
  2. Effective, Credible Community Leadership,
  3. Neighborhood-focused Faith,
  4. Meaningful Work & Opportunity,
  5. Mixed-Income Housing Opportunities,
  6. Sustainable Built Environment,
  7. Youth, Families and Education, and
  8. Neighborhood Connectivity & Safety.

Using empirical data and on the ground surveys, FCS then benchmarks where the neighborhood is currently and how far they could reasonably improve along the continuum. Roles are split among stakeholders (residents, public officials, police, business owners, faith leaders, etc.) so that no one eats the elephant alone. Everyone has a manageable set of tasks to complete to achieve success.

In the South Atlanta neighborhood, about seven houses south of Turner Field in Atlanta, I was part of a team that solved cold fusion and may have developed a whole new business line in the process.

How many 8,000sf buildings are there in your worst neighborhoods? What if you could turn ten of them into for-profit grocery stores delivering healthy foods to a population that often eats dinner out the back of an ice cream truck? The reason that there aren’t more grocery stores in these neighborhoods is twofold: 1) lack of a distribution network (the cold fusion that we solved) and 2) grocery store efficiencies—they’re more profitable when they’re larger and in other locations.

FCS might not be your solution and your passion for serving may not be opening a grocery store (like our Carver Neighborhood Market) but my point is this: you are worth more to these communities than the money you can give. With proper supervision (and I mean that: well-meaning folks trying to do good can do lots of damage to sensitive neighborhoods—see Toxic Charity) we have skills in negotiation and business that these neighborhoods need.

Your Organization. If we start in the community, the second opportunity we have to give back is through our organizations. In the twilight of our lives, none of us wants to look back and feel that our accomplishments were built at the expense of others in our organizations.

I heard Mark Fernandes (@MarkSFernandes) from the Luck Companies speak a few years ago and it changed the course of my life. He said, “If you think you’re being kind to someone by leaving them in a position for which they are not gifted, you risk wasting their life.”

For me, that meant creating an organization with narrow enough roles that our Partners (we don’t have employees) can use their unique gifts. But it also means that we spend an hour each week talking about how our organization fits into the narrative of our city. We talk about how HIV patients will have a better experience in the clinic we negotiated. We talk about how Behavioral Health is an important piece of public safety in our community and Grady Hospital will have another ten years to provide it in a space we just leased.

Your work is important to the fabric of your city and if you don’t connect that importance for others in your organization, you risk wasting their talents, you rob them of the opportunity to really stretch to accomplish a goal and you risk greater opportunity to help others in the community.

It takes time, but engagement is worth it.

Your Home. Lastly, we can express our gratitude for this great business at home. I completed a Lifework Leadership course last year and one of the speakers was Louis Upkins (@LouisUpkins). It seems strange to say and he was even a little apologetic about how insulting it sounds, but what if we treated our spouse and kids like a Client?

I know. They’re more important than a Client, right? We certainly think of them that way, but do I always TREAT them that way? Do I answer the phone as enthusiastically for them as I do for a great Client? Do I end the call the same? Do I give them as much time? Attention?

For a commercial real estate broker, conveying value to a Client is second nature. And even then, we still dedicate a significant amount of time to it. Do we spend that much energy and resources on our families?

I don’t have any of these down. I struggle with being thankful and with conveying it through the community, my company and at home. What I’ve shared here isn’t comprehensive, either.

But I’d leave you with this: We have been blessed with things in our lives for which we have paid nothing, and whatever perspective you bring to life, most agree that the proper response is something. I’d love to hear what your something is. And here’s a hint: its more expensive than just money. Love requires more. But you knew that.