End Malaria could have been so much more...

I bought a copy of End Malaria this week. You should too.  It is, as promised, a great book. And it does, in fact, benefit a great cause. 

Still, as I poured over the 60+ essays submitted by leading business thinkers and innovators, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the biggest opportunity of all was simply missed.  End Malaria could have been a true game changer.  Instead its just a great book that benefits a great cause.

Before I get to that… let me just put in a plug for the book itself.  The description on Amazon.com reads as follows:

End Malaria is more than a book, it’s a great cause.

At least $20 from each copy sold by us goes directly to Malaria No More to send a mosquito net to a family in need and to support life-saving work in the fight against malaria. Malaria No More, an international advocacy organization, is on a mission to end malaria related deaths by 2015.

In addition to saving lives, buying this book means you can enjoy essays by 62 of American’s favorite business authors, including Tom Peters, Nicholas Carr, Pam Slim, and Sir Ken Robinson. Organized into three main sections—Focus, Courage, Resilience—and eight subsections—Tap Your Strengths, Create Freedom, Love & Be Kind, Disrupt Normal, Take Small Steps, Embrace Systems, Get Physical, Collaborate—all essays in End Malaria share a desire to inspire readers to look within themselves for solutions to their everyday dilemmas and for motivation to realize their desires.

Editor Michael Bungay Stanier envisioned End Malaria as a book that would marry the best writers of the business world to a deserving cause. Michael assembled and edited this collection with a goal to leverage that breadth of expertise these writers represent for an issue of global importance.

At its core, End Malaria is about doing great work including the hard work to save lives. All of the writers in this collection and all of the partners involved have waived fees in order to raise the maximum amount of money.

To summarize, by purchasing the book you will help to raise money to support a very important cause… the effort to end malaria around the world. 

Why is that so important? 

Seth Godin, who contributed an essay, and whose alternate publishing concept, The Domino Project, published the book, explained the benefits of buying a book where the proceeds are donated to the cause of ending malaria are simple: “A child wouldn’t die from malaria, a disease that causes more childhood death than HIV/AIDS." 

His post continues:

It’s that direct. Malaria bednets are simple nets that hang over a window or a bed. They’re treated with a chemical that mosquitos hate. The mosquitos fly away, they don’t bite, people don’t get malaria.

Every single penny spent on the Kindle edition goes to Malaria No More, giving them enough money to buy one or two bednets and to deliver them and be sure they’re used properly. Low overhead, no graft, no waste. Just effectiveness. And if you buy the beautiful paperback edition, you can easily give it away when you’re done and the same $20 donation gets made. None of the authors or anyone at the Domino Project sees your money, there’s no ulterior motive, just the fact that a kid won’t die.

Again, I think its a terrific project.  The essays are smart.  The money raised has the potential to be significant. The buzz surrounding the book will surely generate even greater awareness, and the potential for more fundraising and action.

So what’s my complaint? 

End Malaria could have been so much more than just an interesting book.  End Malaria could have been so much more than just a collection of essays from smart, innovative thinkers.  End Malaria could have been so much more than just a tool for raising money. 

What could it have been? 

A collection of essays about business and innovation from some of the world’s leading thinkers doesn’t have anything to do with ending malaria.  Giving readers an understanding of how to improve productivity, pursue excellence, embrace systems, collaborate and more – all of which are areas of focus in the book – won’t actually change anything.  Well, it won’t change anything in the context of helping them to understand and stay deeply involved in the work needed to end malaria. 

Imagine what would have happened if you had pressed the dozens of brilliant marketers and strategists for answers to really difficult questions about ending malaria, or addressing causes generally?  Imagine what the book would have delivered had the contributing authors had been asked to apply their intelligence, experience, perspective and energy towards truly solving this cause, instead of just serving it with greater awareness?

Some possible examples:

  • Mitch Joel is a brilliant digital strategist who writes in the book about the importance of developing and maintaining a personal brand.  He could have explained how working to end malaria enhances your brand and creates connections to others who are committed to important causes, creating all sorts of powerful personal and professional opportunities.
  • David Allen is an absolute genius when it comes to organizing and prioritizing how you spend your time and focus on your work.  He could have explained how to find a little bit of time each day, with everything else happening in your life, to commit to recruiting more people to support this cause.
  • Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology and has written several best-selling books about how to make better choices, and create better choice environments for customers. He could have written about how to expand the number of options for how people could work to end malaria, instead of limiting them.
  • Nancy Duarte knows more about how to create compelling presentations than anyone I have ever encountered.  She could have written about how someone reading End Malaria could have passed the lessons contained in the book (assuming they related to ending malaria) along to others, so they resonated and inspired action.

I could go on, and on, and on… there are 58 more authors.

Ironically, Jonah Lehrer writes in the book that "When we’re faced with a difficult problem, the most obvious solution - that first idea we’re focused on - is probably wrong."  Fundraising is quite possibly the least interesting potential outcome from an impressive project of this kind, but it has become the primary focus of the promotional efforts around the book.  The big message is that by purchasing the book you will help to end malaria around the world.  In reality, by purchasing the book you will accomplish two things: 1) get yourself an excellent collection of essays and b) contribute money to a worthy organization.  Everything beyond that is a bit more fuzzy in terms of meaningful, measurable outcomes to the effort to end malaria. 

Was creating an inspiring book to raise money to support this cause was the most obvious solution that the organizers could develop?  If so, that’s exactly why it was the wrong one.

Greater awareness will always help to advance a cause.  But if the cause of ending malaria suffers from a lack of awareness, this book won’t solve that problem. Most of the people involved, or who will end up purchasing or reading the book, are already part of the community that is aware of this issue.  This is a convenient new way to raise money.  Those who are new to the cause won’t find enough in the book to keep them engaged with the issue, or committed to the work necessary to end malaria. More celebrity authors and innovators won’t change that.  No amount of money raised will ever be enough.  And perhaps most frustrating of all, when people see lots of books sold and money raised, they’ll think that we’ve settled on a model that can be used to address other issues.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a book next month that raises money to support breast cancer, and the following month to support education around multiple sclerosis or chronic fatigue syndrome.  And so on.

But this project, the collected intelligence and insights, experience and perspective available from these incredible authors, could have changed the way we think about this important cause, or any cause.  So much new and better thinking is needed.  The authors could have provided real solutions that individuals and organizations around the world could have used to tip the balance towards truly ending malaria.  But they didn’t.

You should buy the book.  You should celebrate the project and the contributors.  But you should also feel just a little disappointed that such an incredible opportunity to truly address this serious in a meaningful, measurable, and sustainable way issue was missed. 

I write about how we need to move beyond simply generating awareness for causes in my new book, Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues In A Connected Society.  The proceeds from my book don’t benefit any particular organization, but I hope the insights will help every individual and organization committed to changing the world think about things a little differently.