I returned from a perspective expanding journey to India recently, and a week later remain jetlagged and somewhat unsettled by the quiet and orderly United States. Better writers have attempted to describe the experience of contemporary India, a singularly diverse and dazzling country of more than 1 billion beautiful people, plus the innumerable loose cows, monkeys, elephants and camels wandering through every frame.
To be in India is to ride a scooter powered rickshaw at rush hour through the streets of Jaipur, dodging larger vehicles left, right and center through unimaginable traffic. It is walking out from the airport into the Delhi night to a nearly impassable wall of humanity, even at 4am. It is the open, disarming smiles of 10,000 children simply curious about foreign visitors. It is a dog fighting a monkey.
Cue the Taj Mahal. Of all the iconic buildings (from the Eiffel Tower to the Corn Palace) I’ve visited, the Taj Mahal has been unquestionably the most beautiful to experience in person, from the first lightening of the sunrise. Those fellows built a 7th wonder, and if you can go see it, you should.
A gent approached us, “Let me show the spot,” leading us to a particularly stone where the Taj shone beautifully in the morning light. Pictures snapped. “Take another picture here,” leading us again to a perfectly framed keepsake.
“Here you are my friend,” I said, handing him a few rupees. “No, No! ” was the response, “There are other places to show you. Follow me.” Five more spots, the money shots of the Taj. “My friend, thank you,” I said, insisting on the rupees.
“Are you Happy?” he asked me. He wasn’t the first. I was asked that question at least seven times in India, but our man at the Taj left me sputtering.
Traveling around for a living, I politely ignore panhandlers and scam artists. “Sorry,” I usually reply to most any stranger’s query, an answer that both acknowledges them as people and declines further engagement.
“I am not here for your money. This is my karma, my work. I show people the Taj. Are you Happy?“
“Thank you,” I replied, handing him the cash again without answering the question.
“Are you Happy?” came the reply, not yet accepting the money
“Yes. Thank you. Take the money. Thank you.”
“Only if you are Happy. Are you Happy, yes?“
“Yes!” I finally replied, “I am Happy. Thank you.” And with that he bowed, accepted my gratuity, and disappeared with his broom into the morning.
Am I Happy? I am not even sure what the question means, in the direct way a poor Indian fellow asks a wealthy American before accepting $5. In the moment? In life, generally? With my career, choices, the inevitable regrets I carry after 41 years of living?
Yes? Sometimes? In progress?
This might be the question of our times, especially in the wealthy, unmoored America of 2015. We have more than ever, at least financially, and yet it doesn’t feel that way. America isn’t an especially happy place these days, and hasn’t been since the 1990s or before. We had Saved by the Bell and Hammer pants but that couldn’t last. Now we have The Walking Dead and skinny jeans.
And similarly in philanthropy. Are our donors happy with us? Retention rates suggest not by a long shot. The answer must be No.
I’ve never liked donor surveys. I don’t believe that donors are altogether honest with their own feelings in response to a survey, and that complex motivations are hard to compile and understand. We ask, “Is recognition important to you?” and everyone says, “No” but misspell or leave out a name in the donor listings and see what happens.
But what if ask, simply, “Are you Happy?” before we ask for money. With our work, with our results, with the way we make you feel as a donor and investor? I honestly don’t know what the donors would tell us. Let’s ask anyway.
Are you Happy?