Thursday, February 09, 2017

Laboring in the Chick-Fil-A Vineyard

I think one of the more interesting parables of Jesus' is the one found in Matthew 20.

In it, a vineyard owner goes out to hire workers to harvest his crop. Early in the day, he hires a group of workers, and promises to pay them a certain wage (a denarius), as he puts them (gladly!) to work.

But about noon, he decides he needs more workers, so he goes and hires more to complete the second half of the day, also promising to pay these a denarius.

Finally, with only about an hour left before quitting time, he then goes out a final time to hire a final group of workers. These he also graciously promises a denarius to join the (labor) party.

At the end of the day, when all the workmen gather around to receive their wages, those who started first are (someone understandably, to my twisted way of thinking) unhappy about the fact that those who only had to work an hour, were paid the same as they. But you know the story: The vineyard owner says, "Why are you grumbling? Didn't I pay you what I promised? Isn't what I pay those others my own business?"

I guess my struggle with this scenario has been the seeming inequity of it. A workman is worthy of his hire, after all. It seems unfair of the vineyard owner to pay some more than others, to pay some people a full day's wage for just an hour's work, when others have worked hard all day for the same amount.

I think the source of my discomfort comes from the fact that the workers are working for the vineyard owner. And we realize that, in this scenario, the vineyard owner is God. Does God truly reserve the right to distribute His grace unfairly?

One Long Night at the Chick-Fil-A

Recently our friends Jason and Hannah Comerford told us about an opportunity to win 52 free meals at Chick-Fil-A. The Christian-owned fast food operation (known for its solid Christian values) just built a new restaurant here on South Hill, and they always celebrate such openings with a promotion called #CFAfirst100. The first 100 people to show up before 6 a.m. on the day they open each get 52 free meals with a discount card good for up to a year! Sweet.

Jason and Hannah love Chick-Fil-A and they were excited about being among the first 100. The trick was, typically, people start lining up 24 hours in advance of the Grand Opening, which is when they open the Chick-Fil-A's parking lot and bathrooms to campers who get in line.

Jason and Hannah wanted to be sure they were in the first 100, so they showed up before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8. (Grand opening was 6 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9.)

You may recall what Feb. 8 was like ... it was cold. And wet. Piles of mushy snow still on the ground. So, picture sitting in these miserable conditions for 24 hours, waiting for Chick-Fil-A to open, just so you can win free chicken meals for a year! But, that's what they wanted to do. So they packed up a tent, cots, sleeping bags, and lots of warm clothing and claimed their spot in the cold, wet, Chick-Fil-A parking spot. And they found themselves within the first 10 winners!

Later that day Martin and I were planning on having lunch, and on my way I stopped by to see how they were doing. When I arrived, shortly before noon, I learned that the usual crowds hadn't materialized and there were still about 50 slots open in the #CFAfirst100 promotion! Since I was hungry and the smell of mouth-watering Chick-Fil-A filled the air, I decided to grab my camping gear and join them.

After lunch, I arrived with my gear at about 2 p.m. and became #CFAfirst100 winner #52. Now all I had to do was survive about 18 hours of bitter cold, wet weather. (Mind you, by this time Jason and Hannah had already been on scene for more than 8 hours!)

Later that night, about dinnertime, we learned there were still a dozen or so slots available. So we began "phoning friends." One of them, Rebekah McKenzie, said she would like to join, but it wouldn't be until later that evening.

We joked about how seemingly unfair that would feel ... now that we had suffered through hours and hours of cold, wet temperatures (6 hours in my case, and 14 hours in Jason and Hannah's). That's when Hannah first said: "Yeah ... that would be kind of like Christ's parable of the vineyard workers, wouldn't it?" The lightbulb began to go on ...

... then it went off until 5:30 a.m., when loudspeakers began urging us to arise and claim our final prize. When I dragged my sorry carcass out of my warm (but slightly damp) sleeping bag and headed for my place in line, there was Rebekah! And also Samantha Naron! They arrived about the time I bedded down the evening before. And Rebekah said she was winner #100!

So Rebekah and Sam had to put up with about 8 hours of nasty conditions in order to get their 52 meals. I had to put up with about 16 hours ... but Jason and Hannah were there 24 hours!

As we talked about that, it occurred to me how starkly like the true parable of Christ's that was. In some senses, us hanging out in Chick-Fil-A's parking lot was work. But it was also fun. And, it was definitely a blessing. They had games, and good food, and there were great people to hang out with. I renewed several old acquaintances and made some new friends as well. (I'm still amazed at how many people Jason and Hannah already knew in that parking lot!)

Perhaps even better was the sense of grace and blessing. Rather than be jealous for Rebekah and Sam's good fortune (relatively speaking), I found myself excited for them. We all got the exact same reward, no matter how long we had persevered.

Jason and Hannah were there a lot longer than I was, of course ... which also made me realize how blessed I was to get the 52 free meals without having to actually suffer the full 24 hours of "parking lot life" for it.

It's not really about the work, is it?

This new analogy of God's grace has given me a renewed appreciation for Christ's parable. I really don't think His focus was the same as mine was, on "the work" completed by the vineyard workers. In reality, the day's wages was a blessing for all who received the denarius. And work itself is a blessing from God! Rather than grumble about the seeming disparity, the earlier workers should have been grateful to the Lord of the Harvest for being included in the party at all. And the newer workers of course should have been overwhelmed with blessing at their good fortune.

Grace all around!

Eat more Chickin'!

This event has also given me a new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A. This wonderful business is bearing witness to the culture in so many ways. Everything they did during those 24 hours was excellent and "in order." We even got to go indoors for a few hours, where it was nice and warm ... to pack meals for local homeless! (They supplied the materials, and the venue, and we supplied the labor. It was A LOT of fun! Not to mention their nice, clean, warm, spotless bathrooms!)

And the entire time, they had music and entertainment going. I noted with interest that the music seemed to mostly be instrumental versions of popular worship songs that I enjoy! Interesting.

Something else my new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A is doing for me ... it's making me hungry! Time for lunch. Chick-Fil-A, here I come!!! One down, 51 to go.

* * *

P.S.: Here's a fun article in the Puyallup Patch about the "First 100" event. The photo features my good friend and World Vision colleague Jack Laverty, who just happens to be the son-in-law of Elimites Gordy and Linda McCoy!

(So, if you want to eat more chickin', spend some time hanging out with the McCoys, and maybe it will happen! Don't come a-knockin' at my door, though ...)

P.P.S.: I apologize to Rebekah that in an earlier version I got her arrival time wrong ... I blame sleeping standing up. (And I'm still not exactly sure when Sam arrived!)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Uber Vs. Lyft

I have been driving for Uber since October 2016 (nearly five months now). Recently (about three weeks ago) I was accepted to also drive for Lyft. Simultaneously, I was certified to drive in King County, Washington, as well as my native Pierce County, for both Uber and Lyft.

Many people have asked: Which do I like better, Uber, or Lyft? And what's the difference? I thought I might use this blog post to try and answer that question.

Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

I can drive for both Uber and Lyft because I am an independent contractor, a driver for hire. Each company has very similar requirements, though in this county, Lyft is probably more stringent. (They require licensing in both Seattle and Tacoma, whereas Uber just requires Tacoma. Lyft also requires a Washington State business license; Uber does not. Both require a federal defensive driving course certificate, and also city knowledge courses, as well as passage of a vehicle inspection and background security check.)

The Seattle business license is more than twice the price of the Tacoma one. But now that I have a driver for hire business license in both Tacoma and Seattle, I can pick up riders in both Pierce and King Counties. Which means I don't necessarily have to "deadhead" it back from an airport fare, but can pick up riders on the way back. (This sounds great in principle, but I have yet to find any riders returning from the airport. There is a long queue for both Uber and Lyft drivers at the airport.)

Both Uber and Lyft use sophisticated apps for drivers. It is easy to tell the app you are available for riders. I typically turn both apps on at the same time, and wait for my first rider. If the pickup is within 20 minutes, I accept the fare, and turn the opposite app off for the duration.

What I Like About Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

Both services give you a great deal of flexibility. If you want to work, you simply turn on the app. When you are done, you just turn it off, and that's that. As an independent contractor, you are basically your own boss.

With both services, I've found you have the potential to make between $10 and $20 per hour. They both advertise that more is possible, but I have yet to figure out how to actually make more. So much simply depends on the luck of the draw: The fares you get, how quickly you get them, how far away they are (your drive to the fare's pickup location is totally on your own dime), what kind of gas mileage your vehicle gets (you pay for your own gas), whether or not the fare is picked up in a "surge" area (more about surging later), how far the fare is traveling, etc.

What I Don't Like About Driving for both Uber and Lyft

My main frustration about both services is that neither tells you (until your fare is in the car) exactly where you are taking them. For all you know, they're going to Montana, and once they are in your vehicle and you discover this, you are pretty much committed to taking them there. This is (obviously) a major problem for drivers.

One Sunday afternoon I wanted to do a little driving. My first fare was to the SeaTac airport, a 45-minute ride up from Graham. I got paid (minimally) for the 45 minutes up, but the 45 minutes back were at my own expense. (This is called "deadheading.")

My next fare wanted to go to Seattle. I made a little bit more on the ride up, but now the deadheading back took an hour.

I decided to take one more fare, and prayed it would be local. It was nearly dinnertime and I was quite tired. But they wanted to go to a restaurant north of Seattle. It took more than an hour to get there, and at least that much time (unpaid) back.

I had invested more than 5 hours of driving the three fares. I made a little over $100, but my gas was probably $30, so $70 for 5+ hours of driving. Barely over minimum wage, and I was exhausted.

What's worse is when you drive out a half hour to puick someone up, only to discover they want to go 2 miles. (They could have walked.) You make the five or ten-minute drive with them, get paid about $5, then have to drive a half hour back to your point of origin. You've invested over an hour (plus about $5 or $10 in gas) for a $5 fare.

This could all be prevented if both Uber and Lyft would simply tell you (before you accept a fare) their destination. But neither do, because they want you to accept every fare, even if it means you as the driver get the shaft in the process. Both services obviously care more about riders than they do about drivers.

Pros and Cons of Each

This major drawback is partly alleviated by something Lyft does which they call "destination mode." If you go to the airport, you can move into "destination mode," which means you tell it you only want fares that are heading your direction (home). You get far fewer fares, but at least you don't wind up with someone who wants to go north of Seattle while you are trying to head south toward home (and dinner).

But, in this county at least, Lyft has far smaller market penetration than Uber. This means you get fewer requests, and that you have to travel further for the few you get. I frequently get pings from Lyft to ask me to pick up a fare a half hour away. My personal cutoff is 20 minutes, but I have no way of telling either Uber or Lyft this, so I end up denying a lot of requests, and they chastise you for this (if your "acceptance rate" is "too low").

However, most drivers (and riders too) seem to like Lyft better than Uber. I think this is because their customer service is a little better, and there are a few things they do that make more sense for both drivers and riders (like allowing drivers to filter according to destination).

Lyft also allows riders to tip using their credit card, and Uber does not (although we drivers can accept cash tips from Uber riders).

Because Lyft's market penetration is lower (at least here in Pierce County), that also means Lyft riders experience longer wait times for a ride than Uber riders do. Which is probably frustrating, since they are paying a little bit more than Uber riders.


"Surging" happens when a supply-and-demand algorithm determines that there is a higher demand for drivers than there is supply in a given area, and therefore prices for the riders increase. I have seen surge pricing go as high as four times the normal fare, and I've heard it can go even higher than that under extreme circumstances.

In this area, Uber surges daily. I have yet to see Lyft surge anywhere.

But even Uber's surges are very unpredictable and temporal in nature. Surges often last just a few minutes, much quicker than you can typically get there. And by driving into a surging area with your app on, you may change the supply-and-demand balance. I've frequently seen surges evaporate in front of me as I drive into surging areas with my app on.

Also, the services inform riders about surge pricing, and they are often savvy enough to know that if they wait a few minutes, the surge might evaporate. So I've had the frequent experience of driving through a surging area, only to get fares as soon as the surge has ended.

This experience leads me to believe that surging is primarily a gimmick to entice drivers to get out there and drive. It's a rainbow to chase, that you can rarely catch. I have (by sheer luck) gotten one or two surge-priced rides, but such things are rare. So, mostly I've learned to ignore surging, and just drive when I am available to drive.


For me, the jury is still out. Both services are so similar, though there are slight advantages (in different respects) to each. As a driver, I'm perfectly happen doing both Uber and Lyft, at least for the time being.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Summary of Apocalypse (Part 1 of 3)

A lot of people have been asking me what "Apocalypse" (the science fiction novel I am working on now, currently writing on chapter 4) is about. It's been more than a decade in the planning, and I still struggle to summarize it, elevator-speech fashion. So I thought I would take a break from the writing to try and present a brief summary here.

(The challenge, of course — in addition to being brief — will be to not include any spoilers!)

This blog post covers only the first third of the novel, which is subtitled simply ...


Apocalypse starts with the end of Planet Earth as we know it. NASA and other space agencies have been tracking large, civilization-threatening asteroids (near-earth objects, or NEOs) for some time. One which briefly caused them concern as a potential existential threat, way back in December of 2004 when it was first discovered and calculations showed it might come perilously close to striking the earth in 2029, was 99942 Apophis. But further orbital dynamics measurements and observations quickly determined the threat from Apophis was minimal, that it would miss earth in 2029 by a comfortably large margin.

That all changes on September 11, 2027, when "something" (or someone) unseen provides an explosive nudge to Apophis, way out in the asteroid belt as it is inbound toward Earth ... and its chance of striking our planet suddenly changes to 100%. Its new course has the civilization killer striking us dead-center on April 13, 2029, and the world has only six short months to do something about it ... and also, to deal with the unseen enemy who apparently wants us dead.

Apocalypse follows this story through the lives of three very distinct individuals, who are dealing with the coming catastrophe in far different ways, and who will ultimately be brought together under the most unlikely of circumstances:

Mitchell Feofan is an American astronaut, of Russian descent, who is working on the International Space Station with the Orion interplanetary exploration program when sudden preparations for an urgent voyage to intercept Apophis (and to "deal with" the adversary who nudged it) are drawn up. He leads the three-person, one-way mission into the unknown, which is humanity's only hope for surviving the catastrophe. His ship, the Orion-class USS Menelvagor, is loaded to the hilt with the most lethal weapons ever devised by humankind, in hopes of stopping the fate coming at earth like a titanic steamroller.

And of course, in addition to dealing with the more skin-crawling aspects of their deadly payload, Feofan also has to put up with the antics of Rigel, their onboard artificial intelligence.

Fadi Tanzilur is, in almost every respect, Feofan's antithesis. He is a Middle Easterner who has been cultivated by terrorists to stop the European Space Agency (ESA) from completing its mission to deflect Apophis. The organization he represents believes the apocalypse must happen first in order for a new civilization to be rebuilt under Sharia Law. And Tanzilur and his accomplices are in position to execute their bombing of ESA headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, when something truly extraordinary begins to shake the foundations of his life and cause him to dramatically change direction.

And then there is Ukwambulu Liyana, who lives in a world far apart from the struggles either to stop Apophis or profit from the disaster it brings. An impoverished victim of abusive power, she has risen above her own disempowerment and now works to help HIV-afflicted women living in a shantytown in Durban, South Africa. Along with an Anglican priest who changes her life forever, she finds herself on the day of disaster on the beach which is closest to the asteroid's projected point of impact in the Indian Ocean. There she catches a glimpse of a key role that she will play in the unveiling of a new era for humanity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What’s Your Exploitation Quotient?

In recent days I’ve felt particularly vulnerable to the possibility of exploitation. This wasn’t something I considered when I got laid off in early August from my 22-year job with World Vision. But being jobless, and the prospect of approaching a time (in the near future) when our income may be considerably smaller than it is today, leaves one with certain feelings of vulnerability.

And the thing that has been a shock to me, which I didn’t expect at all, is all the people and organizations “out there” who seek to exploit that vulnerability for their own ends.

My first real taste of this came about two months ago. I was looking for a new job, hard and fast, and using a legitimate employment site was contacted by a company in San Francisco that was supposedly looking for a Social Media Director. The job seemed a good fit. After an hour-long interview (which I felt went well), the hiring manager offered me a job. The bad news is, it turned out to be a total scam. The good news is, I got suspicious before I actually lost anything. (Read more about this story on my blog.)

I reported the scam to the FBI, but never even got a call back. Someone told me these type of scams were so common they don’t even, apparently, get investigated. This was just the first of many attempts to exploit my current vulnerability. I receive multiple emails daily from insurance companies, employment sites, and others offering me work-at-home “jobs” which are too good to be true. I now realize the vast majority of these are attempts to exploit people who are in a vulnerable position because they have been laid off.

I’ve had lots of time to think about why this happens. People seek to exploit us daily. Sometimes it’s obvious; other times it’s very subtle. Sometimes strangers are the culprits; other times it’s people we know, trust, and love.

Yes, it’s true — we often seek to exploit each other. Even in the Church, sometimes I think we fall victim to this. It might come in the form of trying to “guilt” someone into serving or fulfilling a particular ministry need. Or perhaps it might come in the form of pressuring someone to give to a specific financial need, for reasons other than their best interest.

Or sometimes we might attend worship services or other church events, or participate in small groups or ministries for what WE will get out of it, how it will benefit us, rather than engaging from the core motivation that others might be blessed by our presence, service and participation.

Upon reflection, I also realize that interpersonally we often seek to exploit the people we love, even perhaps without really thinking about it. We might manipulate a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend into doing something we want them to do for us, that isn’t necessarily in their best interest. But because WE want it, we might manipulate the relationship, sometimes without even thinking about it, to exploit their vulnerability to make it happen. Or we might treat them in such a way as to make them feel “smaller,” so that we can magnify ourselves by comparison and “feel better about ourself.”

In 2 Peter 2:3, the Apostle had strong words for those who would exploit others:
And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
You’ve heard the saying: “Don’t use people and love stuff — love people, and use stuff!” One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ life is that there was no trace of exploitation in it. While others frequently sought to use Him for their own personal ends, His every thought, word and deed was for the ultimate good of the people He loved and was sent to serve. 1 John 4:10 says:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
This verse acknowledges the stark reality that we are lousy at loving. And God is very, very good at it! So much so, that it is said of Him, “God is love.” (Sadly, I am not aware that anyone has ever said, “Larry is love!”)

So my question and my conviction is, “How can we get better at loving others?”

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Christ constantly urged His disciples: “Love one another. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, because of the love you have for one another.”

Not a word about exploiting one another in any of that, is there?

So, I guess I will leave you (and me) with this challenge: What’s your exploitation quotient? Are you (perhaps unintentionally) acting in such a way that exploits those around you, even those you love, rather than loving them unconditionally and seeking to build them up?

If you need help loving others the way Jesus loves us, you’re not alone. I think it’s a challenge that confronts all of us. Let’s seek to prayerfully and honestly stimulate and encourage one another to “love and good deeds,” as Scripture commands.

Friday, October 21, 2016

How do we look at faithfulness?

Reprinted from "The Last Word," the leadership blog of Elim Evangelical Free Church.

Cheryl Weller is very faithful to remind us elders when she needs a Last Word from us. Last week, she told me, “You are on schedule to write the Last Word for next week. Can you have something to me by Tuesday?”

“Sure!” I said, then promptly forgot about it. (I almost said, “of course,” but we’ll talk about that in a moment!)

Last night (Tuesday at 10:20 p.m.) she emailed me and (very graciously!) said: “Hey Larry, do you have a Last Word? I needed it today, as I’m publishing tomorrow. Any chance of getting that by noon ready to publish? Thanks! Cheryl :)”

The bad news is, I didn’t receive her email until this morning. I would hit myself in the head with my shoe, but that’s happened too many times before and my head is already sore from yesterday’s abuse. So here I am, pounding it out guiltily! (Referring to the Last Word . . . not my head.)

The good news is, I have been thinking about “faithfulness,” and this whole situation gives me great ammunition. I in so many ways fall short of God’s standard of faithfulness, and this is just another example. As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been listing in my head reasons for my unfaithfulness. They start out as excuses, but end up migrating toward real-life examples of my own sinfulness.

  • My memory is terrible! That’s a big excuse I use a lot for blowing people off when I promise them something (like a Last Word done by Tuesday) and then fail to deliver. I’m a busy person! I have too much going on! Blah, blah, blah. The truth is, I don’t sufficiently value my word, so that when I promise something, I don’t make it a high enough priority to deliver.
  • I de-prioritized delivering on that commitment because I had higher priorities come along. Cheryl has given me grace before, and I knew she would give me grace again. See #1 above!
  • I didn’t really mean what I said when I said it. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” I interpret this to mean, “God’s faithfulness is known by His Word. Your word should be golden. Tell the truth, mean what you say, and do what you say.” Seems simple, no?

  • Selfishness and other sinful priorities. Here’s where it gets really uncomfortable. What was I doing yesterday that was more important than writing the Last Word? I made three Facebook posts. I did some training for a new job. I made a few bucks driving for Uber. I was tired and took a nap. For goodness’ sake, I apparently (without even thinking about it) prioritized my nap above my commitment to Cheryl to finish this Last Word yesterday! When I look at the topic of God’s faithfulness, I frequently think it’s a no-brainer. Of course God is faithful, I reason. He has a perfect memory. He has all the time in the world. He has the wisdom to prioritize properly. We may simply take it for granted (I may take it for granted) that God will do what He says!

Obviously, this speaks far better of God than it does of me, but here’s the truth: We should never take God’s faithfulness for granted. It’s a matter of life and death for us! Let’s take a look at some of the promises Scripture gives, related to God’s faithfulness:

Psalm 26:3 – For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.

There are 170 references to the words “faithful” and “faithfulness” throughout Scripture, and many of them tie God’s faithfulness to His steadfast love for us. His faithfulness is proof of His love, as it were. And it’s His faithfulness that creates a path for us to navigate the challenges of daily life.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Without God’s faithfulness to forgive us, we would be condemned to pay the penalty (of death) for our own sins!

1 Corinthians 10:13 – No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Because God is faithful, we can resist temptation, knowing there is ALWAYS a way of escape.

Psalm 86:14; 119:75 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . . . I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

God’s faithfulness establishes His mercy and grace as constants in our lives; even when we are “afflicted” (sometimes because of God’s discipline), we can bank on God’s faithfulness to us!

Psalm 89:14 – Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

God’s faithfulness, once again acting in concert with His steadfast love, is based upon the foundation of His righteousness and absolute commitment to true justice.

2 Thessalonians 3:3 – But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.

Like Job, we may be assaulted by the onslaughts of the evil one. But God has promised to establish and guard us in the midst of those assaults. Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world!

Psalm 31:5 – Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

These were Christ’s very last words as he died on the cross and gave up His spirit into the hands of the Father He loved, whose faithfulness He trusted so deeply. At every moment, and at the very end of our lives, each of us will be confronted with a choice to do the same. Do we trust our souls to the One who created us and promises to redeem us for all eternity?

When I think about it, neglecting to deliver a Last Word at a promised time may be among the least of my acts of faithlessness. Every time I cheat somebody something I owe them or am faithless to my wife with my eyes (by fancying a passing pretty girl a little too longingly, etc.), or “stretch the truth” in my conversation, I am demonstrating my own faithlessness.

Thank God He is faithful and just to forgive, and that His faithfulness is a sign of His steadfast love for me! Let’s pray together that faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Spirit presented in Galatians 5:22, would ever more clearly mark us out as those who are called children of the Father.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nonprofits: Develop your social listening strategy, tools and tactics NOW

I recently left (for financial reasons) a wonderful organization I'd been employed at for nearly 23 years. My history there: I started out at the nonprofit as a writer and editor, founded the organization's web presence (and created most of the products that now help it to raise about half of its billion-dollars-per-year in revenue online), and launched its most integral social media channels (such as its corporate blog, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels), which have also experienced unprecedented success.

My Introduction to Social Listening

During the last few years I served as a member of the organization's corporate social media team,  and one of my key goals (in addition to providing social content, channel management, analytics and online customer care) was to "figure out" social listening. What is it? Who's doing it and what are best practices? How can it help a nonprofit organization like the one I worked for?

I participated in numerous webinars and did a lot of research, then jumped in.

Creating Your Strategy

The first task, once you understand what social listening is, why you should be doing it and how it can help our causes and organizations, is to develop a clear strategy. As with any strategy, it must be well-informed, realistic and achievable, but also ambitious and visionary. And it must take into account the various realities and the interdependencies of the organization you serve.

I wrote a one-pager that outlined what I thought our strategy should be. My supervisor presented it to senior management and they loved it. The bottom line was: If we did social listening right, using some of the cool new tools out there to help us sort through and make sense of "big data," we could position our organization well for continued growth and success by: 1) informing senior management and key stakeholders of social trends and sentiment of our customers as it was occurring; 2) Become far more responsive to our customers (or, in our case, our donors') concerns and opinions; 3) alert us to vital "risk" concerns early in the game; and 3) Equip our own customer service specialists with the data they need, right at their fingertips, to interact effectively with our customers/donors.

Now It's Time To Talk Tactics

After numerous RFPs and interviews, we engaged a firm that one of our national offices had already been working with, Tracx, because we liked the simplicity of the interface they offered, how well they were connected with and seemed able to sift through "big data" sources, and the apparent simplicity/clarity of their customer interface and reporting system. They also worked the hardest of any of the firms we interviewed to get our business, and gave us a preliminary (first-year) price which truly was a good deal. They wanted the account, and seemed like they deserved it.

My management then tasked me with implementing the strategy I had outlined, tactically. I was to create a daily (informal) reporting system that made key stakeholders, specifically those who needed to be aware of risks in the social arena, aware quickly of either general negative sentiment or very specific negative attacks on our organization occurring out there in social space. These stakeholders included the "risk" group within our PR department, social media management, and key representatives from our donor service area. These would assess the relative risk of the information I presented (by email and phone, if urgency demanded) and escalate as appropriate, to our legal area, or senior management, or other stakeholders.

The next reporting tactic was a weekly social listening report, which I prepared in digital and paper form and presented to a group of content management specialists and key organizational stakeholders. This weekly report graphically summarized sentiment analysis for our organization's social interactions, and for those of some key competitors we had identified and were tracking. It also presented conversation trends (in "word cloud" fashion) for key words and phrases we were following, most importantly our own brand terms. And it tracked general trends related to social conversation on our channels and those of our competitors.

If social media followers were engaging with our competitors over specific issues, it was very helpful to understand this and jump in with ideas about how we could provide content to help us become a part of this conversation. Or if content we had provided was really spiking social interest, in contrast to other content we had "out there," it was extremely helpful to give this feedback to the appropriate department in hopes they could "do more of the same."

Because I was responsible for customer care in association with our key social channels, and in collaboration with those channel managers, I also had my finger on the pulse of how our customers were sharing their concerns with us on channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and how they were feeling about our products or core offerings and our content. I therefore included a section at the end of each weekly report to share highlights of key customer feedback and trends, and I made sure our more "traditional" customer service departments (such as our call center, mail center and email correspondents) were hearing me and paying attention.

Finally, I aggregated these weekly reports together into a monthly report which I "prettied up" a bit so my management could send it on up to senior management and give them an easy, visual way to keep in touch with social sentiment of our donors and of those interacting with our competitors. These highly visible monthly and quarterly reports were designed both to equip senior management ... and keep our own department's bread buttered, so to speak!

There are so many reasons social listening, which is being practiced well by today's most responsive business organizations, is an essential skill for nonprofits who want to be successful in the competitive environment they are operating in.

Taking It the "Next Step" — Integrating Social Listening Into Your CRM

One of the things I was hoping would happen while I was still with my organization, but which they have not yet gotten traction on (due to the complexity of the project), is integration of our social listening data with our back-end customer data, or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

A call center representative accessing the CRM account for a donor who calls in upset about something needs to be able to answer such questions as: Does the complainant have a significant social media following? Are they now airing (or are they likely to air) their concerns on their social media channels? If so, does more damage control need to be done? Beyond simply safeguarding the organization's reputation with this donor and keeping them happy, what would be the public engagement benefits of "going the extra mile" to make sure we hear and address their concerns? Etc.

I'm sure you can see the potential, right?

Integrating a social listening system with your CRM on the back-end is no simple task, but the world's best in class organizations are doing it now. So we should be thinking about it!

I'm Listening ... To YOU!

I'd love to hear how your organization is implementing social listening strategy and tactics. What are you learning? Is it worth it? What are the pitfalls and obstacles you are encountering?

And where do you think it's all going from here?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yes, it's embarrassing ... but this week I was the victim of a sophisticated employment scam

As I think most of you know, I am currently between jobs. I was laid off of from World Vision on August 3. I have six months of severance pay (which is very generous of them), but I do have to pay for my own health care (which is ridiculously expensive) and by the end of six months I will need to have something in hand that can help pay the bills.

Darlene has a good part-time job with the Puyallup School District (as a school nurse), though the pay isn't awesome. (Hey, it's the school district.) Our house is paid off, and we do have a solid nest egg set up for retirement, so it's not an emergency. But I do feel some pressure (at my relatively young age!) to find something, and not just anything, but specifically what God has cut me out to do. I've been hard at work investigating jobs in writing and editing, and social media and web innovation, as well as looking at some other areas that might fill the need temporarily. I've also been doing a lot of writing ... working on blogs, on my next novel, and on a magazine article or two. And I've been developing a business idea. (Yes, you guessed it ... related to exotic mushrooms!)

So, I've been busy. I've been working with an outplacement company, and have lots of resumes and applications out there, seeking interviews for various positions. This week (as part of this process) I was taken in (for a brief period of time) by a very sophisticated employment scam. And of course since then I've been dealing with the fallout, trying to protect our assets and help the authorities catch the criminal(s) running the scam, if I can.

I'm embarrassed that I was taken in, however briefly, and it's painful to share about. But I felt I should tell the story so others would be aware and might learn from my mistakes. And also, as you will read more about below, to protect myself if possible.

Laying the Groundwork

It all started out last week, when I saw and applied for a job posted on (a legitimate employment website) for a social media manager job at a (legitimate) smallish/newish business-to-business firm called Filmless, in San Francisco. The posting described basically what I would be good at doing and offered $35/hour for full-time work-at-home efforts, plus expenses.

This amount didn't work out to what I was making at my last job, but was better than what I need to survive and what I'd already been offered elsewhere. And the work-at-home part was very attractive. So I applied, via the Indeed site.

Day One ... Monday, Sept. 12

I received a contact email in the afternoon from someone purportedly named "James Townsend." The form was a standard Indeed email form and my response that I was interested triggered to their website.

Day Two ... Tuesday, Sept. 12

About 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, I received a very officious-sounding message from James which said:

We at Filmless are glad to let you know we have accepted your resume from Indeed for the position of a Social Media Manager and you can proceed now to get started with your interview for the job. This Position is Mon- Fridays and pays $35/hour, full time hours guaranteed if desired with salary increase.

To proceed you must first undergo an online assessment/job briefing and you will be needing a Gmail (Google Hangout Instant Messenger) on your Pc/device, using your Gmail account to gain access to Hangout Messenger. Contact your interview Manager and request to get started with an interview using your job code as verification."
The part (other than a few sloppy typos) that should have been my first clue, which I didn't pay sufficiently close attention to at the time, was his email address, Note that it has the word "Filmless" in it, but it's actually from the Gmail domain, and not a legitimate email address. But, I completely missed that at the time.

So, I followed his instructions and connected with him via Google Hangout, which I am familiar with as a result of using it extensively on my last job. His account had the official-looking Filmless logo which was on their (legitimate) website and Google Plus account. So I assumed (yes, another assumption) that I was talking to the legitimate Filmless Google account.

Once we connected on Google on Tuesday morning, he said, "Okay, are you ready for your interview?" I was somewhat taken aback, assuming an interview would be something that would have to be scheduled. I was sitting there at my computer in my pajamas still, so I responded: "Well, I'm not prepared for a video interview, we should schedule that if that's the case. But if you wanted to interview by chat I suppose we could do that now."

He simply responded, "Yes," and started off firing interview questions. (By the way, this became an MO for him. He typically didn't respond either completely or clearly to my questions, which should have been another clue. It was as if his attention was divided while we were talking online, and now I suppose it was — probably running his scam at multiple levels simultaneously — but at the time I supposed he was probably just a busy guy and not a great communicator on chat. Many people aren't, and one reason is they don't type as fast as I do!)

The interview took about two hours, and he asked lots of questions about my social media skills and experience, which I realized at the time were canned questions, but I figured he was probably HR and asking a lot of people standardized questions. Hence I was quite surprised when, at the end of the interview, he began talking as if I had the job.

Another red flag was that as he did this, he immediately launched into financial details. Did I want to be paid by check, or online? If online, what bank did I use? And he began talking immediately about providing me with the funds to purchase the software I would need to do my job at home. Some of the items on the list were familiar and I had used them before, others were new. But I realized the way such software worked was, as a user on a company account I wouldn't actually have to pay to purchase "software," but the company would simply add me as one of its available user seats.

One other thing that had happened during the interview (prior to this point) was that I had tried to interrupt his stream of questions (at what seemed like an appropriate moment) to ask a list of questions of my own about the company: their history, their culture, their values, their financial details, etc. The only one he actually answered was to confirm they were located in San Francisco (which I already knew from Googling them), but he ignored the rest of my questions. Also a red flag.

But at this point I was still processing the fact that it sounded like, counter to my expectations, he was offering me a job. So I asked for clarification: "Are you offering me a job?"

Yes, he said he was. He confirmed the salary and we talked a bit about benefits. He mentioned that they did have a retirement plan, but when he copied me a list of benefits, nothing about a retirement plan was on it. Another red flag, but I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.

Another red flag was a comment he made that I was "lucky" to be selected for this job — not something a real HR professional would probably say. But I excused it, thinking, "Well, he's probably new. The company's only two years old, after all."

Then he continued talking about the process of getting me a check, and when I was available to start? I told him I was flexible. He said he wanted me to start training on Monday, and that for the sake of speed they would email me a copy of the check (as a PDF) so I could deposit it in my bank account.

At that point I told him I was not yet ready to accept his offer, that I needed to speak with my wife about it and also close the loop with some other applications I had in process first. This response seemed to upset him a bit, and I received a curt: "Well then, message me back when you've made up your mind." Should have been another red flag.

Shortly after the interview ended (about 1 p.m. or so) I received a text (I had given James all my basic contact information, which is a part of my resume) from someone who identified herself as Angela Perryman from Filmless. The number the text came from was 858.683.7846. I didn't recognize the area code but assumed it was San Francisco. (I didn't research this until later, and found out it was a San Diego area code. Not that that in and of itself is anything of a huge red flag.)

By the way, I'm putting names I was given (probably all phony) as well as the real (disposable, no doubt) email addresses and the text number that I have here, in this blog, because I know Google will index this information and it will become available to anyone searching the web for information on these scammers.

Was I full of reservations at all these unusual red or yellow flags? Yes, absolutely, and I talked those through with Darlene after she got home from work Tuesday evening. She agreed they were weird. But I had also spent a lot of time researching Filmless, and they seemed to have a spotless reputation. (At this point I didn't really consider the possibility that Filmless itself wasn't a part of the scam.) It was clear that the company was more or less virtual; though it had a small physical office in San Francisco, it was clear on their website that all their producers were freelancers, and with such a new-ish company it made sense that most of their staff would telecommute.

Other than reservations, however, there was one other thing I had. Let's call it by a term that is frequently used, but difficult to define: A "check in my spirit." I stayed up late Tuesday night, my mind spinning, difficulty going to sleep. I prayed, and I watched a movie to try and get my mind off the sense of nagging anxiety that something wasn't right. But even as I finally went to sleep, well after 1 a.m., and when I woke up at my usual time at 6:30, it was still there.

Day Three ... Wednesday, Sept. 13

I reconnected on Google Hangout with James on Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., as I'd promised. I said, "Before I accept your offer, I have a list of questions for you." I fired all my questions at him (one at a time) from my prepared list. And he responded to them quite well. I also was sure to be clear that he was very aware of my Christian faith, which I know might be off-putting for some. But it didn't seem to phase him. Once again, we talked for about an hour.

My final question was, "Why do YOU enjoy working for Filmless? What makes you go to work in the morning?" (I had also asked him who Angela was ... he said she was his secretary, which in hindsight should also have been a yellow flag, since nowadays such folks are called admins, not secretaries. And I asked him if they worked in the office or were remote. It would have been smarter for him to say "remote" as this would have made it harder for me to verify with Filmless, but he said they worked in the office.) We bantered about the traffic in San Francisco, and he told me the reason he did the job was for the money, and that he had family in the area. I was expecting more of a PR-ish answer than that, but it seemed honest and so I kind of laughed it off. And stuffed down my sense of anxiety, thinking, "Well, I can certainly put the breaks on this at any time if I need to."

I did still have reservations at that point, about all the seeming yellow and red flags, and also about the job description itself, which seemed a bit unrealistic, but Darlene had said: "Test him a bit. Maybe ask for flexible hours and see if he agrees. If so, they probably do really want you and are willing to be flexible. And you could always quit if it doesn't turn out to be a good fit."

So, I told him I was willing to give it a try, if he agreed to my flexible hours request, which he did without hesitation. I asked what the next step was. He said they would pay for my training next week, and that he and I would also need to get some details taken care of before then, so I would need to be available online for a few days. I asked him who would do my training. He said he would, which I also found slightly suspicious. I asked him who my supervisor would be. He said that would be determined after the training. Hmmm. You mean there isn't actually a hiring supervisor? Weird.

Then he again started talking about how to get me a check for me to purchase things I needed. At this point I stopped him and said, "Okay, yesterday you said the check was for software, but my understanding is that's not really how the software situation should work, especially if your company already has relationships with the software vendors" (he had told me earlier that I was replacing another social media manager who had left the company, so it made sense this was true).

But then he replied, "No, it's not for the software, it's for purchasing the equipment from our approved vendor." And the amount of the check made sense for equipment. However, I KNEW the day before he had said it was for software (twice), so this was another red flag. But by this time, I'd taken the bait, and I wrote it off to the fact that he was evidently a pretty sloppy communicator.

In hindsight, it's amazing to me how you can create and use all kinds of internal excuses to try and explain unusual behavior, red flags which should really stop and make you say, "Hold your horses here." But it's a powerful thing, when someone approaches a person who is vulnerable due to need with a seeming way to meet that need. You want to believe that they are telling the truth, so you rationalize things in your own mind to try and make you feel more comfortable and less edgy.

I used to make fun of people who were dumb enough to fall for scams proffered by Nigerian princes. Now, I'm going to be a little more empathetic.

That sense of edginess, I realize now in hindsight, is a valuable thing we should listen and pay attention to. I had SO many red flags, I was already reasonably convinced there was a 50% chance that this was some sort of a scam. Despite this, I continued down the path with this scammer. (Or scammers, I'm not sure.)

I didn't have a virtual check deposit app set up with my credit union (didn't actually even realize they had one, which is a nice thing to have), so I set that up. He then PDF'd me a copy of the check with instructions to print it out and then scan it using the app, for deposit.

I called my credit union (ECCU) and talked this through with them. They said they weren't sure it would work, printing and then scanning a digital copy. But he assured me, "Sure, it will work, it's basically the same thing as scanning the original." Which made sense to me. So I tried it. Repeatedly. About a dozen times. I kept getting error messages from the credit union's system that the scan wasn't clear. James kept bugging me, "Have you deposited it yet?" (Which also should have been suspicious.) And making suggestions about how to make it work: better lighting, etc.

I finally got the scan to go through, by following one of his suggestions and cutting out the printouts in the approximate size of a real check, then placing them on a dark background for the photograph. And the app acknowledged my deposit.

James then asked me for a screenshot of the acknowledgement message to verify that the check had been deposited. But by that time I'd closed the app and couldn't get the message back, and told him so. "Well," he said, "just log on to your account and send me a screenshot of your transaction history." I looked at my account and the check I'd submitted wasn't reflected there yet, and I was still sufficiently suspicious that I wasn't ready to provide account numbers or any sensitive financial information to him, so I told him that deposit wasn't yet reflected in my transaction history and I would send verification whenever I could get it. He then let that go.

And, in hindsight, yet more red flags: The check that he emailed me wasn't made out from Filmless and didn't even had Filmless' name on it. (Or James'.) It was from a "Diversified General Credit Union," signed by a "Demi B. Atwood" and it had the name "James Beckham" in the memo area. Moreover, the check itself wasn't sent to me from James' email account, it was sent from the email account of someone named "Ben Dawson" at

But there was one more thing he wanted. "To set up our payroll, we need verification of your account. Is there a branch of your credit union nearby? We'd like you to go have them make out a $5 cashier's check, to you, then scan and send us a copy of that. You can then cash the check for yourself when you're done."

It seemed an unusual request (another red flag), and I think it pushed me over a tipping point of sort. After all, at this point the thought of NOT having to work with this weirdo was becoming rather appealing. I decided to "play along" but to seek the credit union's advice about the situation. I told him, truthfully, "My credit union doesn't have any branches in my area, but there is another credit union I belong to here, Harborstone, where I can have them make me out a cashier's check."

"Do it," he said, "and let me know when you are able to scan and send a copy of that to me."

So I headed for the credit union. When I got the Harborstone branch office on South Hill. I had a very helpful conversation with a teller who listened well, talked to her supervisor, and came back and agreed that the whole situation seemed quite suspicious. "A $5 cashier's check made you to you? We've never heard of that before and don't understand how that would help them set up payroll. It doesn't have any of your own account numbers on it. Perhaps it's for some sort of a security or credit check?"

"I don't know," I said, "but I can ask them." So I messaged James back and asked him to call me because I had questions.

He didn't respond right away, so I left the bank and ran a few errands. While I was out I also did something else I had intended to do much earlier: I had gotten Filmless' main office number off their website (where they also had email and chat contacts listed). So I called it, intending to ask them about James Townsend and Angela Perryman. But an answering machine picked up the call, so I left a detailed message describing my dilemma.

Meanwhile, James responded to my message asking him to call me: "What questions?" was all he said. (Another red flag was that he never did give me his phone number, even though I asked several times.)

I told him what the credit union had said, that they didn't understand why he'd want me to do this. He gave me some lame and muddled explanation about needing it to set up payroll. So I returned to the credit union and showed them his response. They read it carefully and said, "That doesn't make any sense at all. This really does sound fishy."

I had also brought a copy of the $3,400 check they had sent, which I had already deposited to my credit union, so at this point I asked if they'd be willing to take a look at it. They said, "Of course. We can do even better than that. We can run its numbers to see if it appears legit or not." So the teller typed the numbers into the computer, then immediately shook her head. "Nope," she said, "it's coming up as a bad check."

The gig was up. On their advice, I immediately called ECCU and told them what had happened. They said they would put the check I had deposited into a special research hold and try and figure out what was going on.

After stopping for some lunch, I headed for home. As I did so, James was messaging me: "Did you get the cashier's check? Can you send the scan soon?" His urgency to do these weird financial things was another red flag that I should have really paid attention to earlier on.

I ignored his messages until I got home, and then decided to put him off while I tried to figure out what to do. I messaged him briefly and told him I'd developed a bad migraine (which was true!) while waiting at the bank, and that I was going to bed for the rest of the day (not exactly true) and would talk to him tomorrow. He asked again about the check, but I ignored this, and also a 4:30 message asking me if I was feeling better.

Immediately after this I got onto the FBI's website for internet crimes, called the "Internet Crime Complaint Center" or IC3, and made a full report of the crime. I told a few close friends who had been praying about what had happened, but asked them not to share it publicly, as I didn't want to tip him off that I was onto him. And I also went back on Filmless' site, sent them an email with the whole story, and also tried their chat technology, which said they weren't available to chat. I left a message that I was going to call the San Francisco PD on Thursday if they didn't get back to me. (At this point I still wasn't sure whether they were in on the scam, or not.)

Later Wednesday evening I did get a gracious response from Filmless. They told me that over the past two days they had been the victim of an employment scam, and they apologized, and suggested I ignore any communications about a job offer. A little late, of course ... I wanted to advise them that next time they should say something about it on their website, which would have clinched it for me earlier. But, I can understand that they were inundated putting out the fire. (I've been there, in my job at World Vision.) They also told me they were working with to resolve the situation.

Naturally, I was upset about all this. I felt foolish, and was frustrated about wasting my time, and being victimized, and disappointed that what had seemed like a nice job didn't pan out. Nonetheless, my spirit was at rest, and I also had a great sense of relief. The only open question mark was "Why?" What were the scammers hoping to gain from all this?

I went to bed early and slept like a log on Tuesday night.

Day Four ... Today, Thursday, Sept. 15

James was messaging me via Google again before 8 a.m. this morning. Then, shortly after 8, he sent the following message:
I see you on hangout now , Larry what is going on And the funds you deposited have cleared The bank just informed me"
I was, of course, reasonably certain that was a lie. I knew that even under normal circumstances, a check like that took days to clear. And these weren't normal circumstances; ECCU had said they had put a research hold on this particular check. But, I called them anyway, just to make sure.

While I was waiting to talk to someone, I checked my web balance online, and was startled to see it list in my transaction history the deposit of the $3,400 check! However, when I looked at my available balance, the check amount clearly wasn't reflected in that.

When the operator came on, I started at the beginning and described the situation, then said: "I'm concerned because my transaction history shows the check I deposited yesterday, but my balance does not." The gentleman I spoke with looked at the situation and told me that the deposit was indeed flagged for research, but that as a normal part of their process they were showing the transaction in my history and that they had actually released $200 of the $3,400 check (per their policy, I assume) to my account. He said he would reverse this and that they would contact the issuing bank to be certain. He said if the check was a phony it would be rejected at that point.

Okay, I told him, but I had two concerns: 1) I don't want a single cent of this guy's money in my hands! Yesterday when I talked with you, I assumed the check would be rejected, because I told you what Harborstone told me, that it was a fake. But even if it's not, I don't want him accusing me of cashing his check! And 2) I didn't want to incur any fees for this bad check, if possible.

At this point, after reading James' message this morning, I realized with a chill what the point of the whole scam might be. He would probably come back and say, "Hey, you cashed my check. You owe me that money back!" And of course he'd want it in the form of a cashier's check, or some such. (Possibly the reason he had me prove I could get a cashier's check? I'm not sure.)

Or perhaps the check is one he's stolen from someone else? Or perhaps it was forged on someone else's "real" account? And now of course the bank of the victim would have a record of me trying to cash the stolen or forged check. Perhaps this might be a blackmail attempt of some sort?

This feels ugly ... here's why I'm telling you this

Whatever it is, it feels extremely ugly. So I'm telling the story here, partly in an effort to protect myself, just as I've told it to the FBI (through their IC3 website ... though I really wish I could talk to a human being there).

Naturally I'm hoping for justice. And I'm hoping to stop this guy so no one else is victimized. I feel bad for what has happened to, and to, as a result of this scam. And possibly to other people (possible innocent victims?) I've named in this blog.

In the meantime I've learned some lessons about trusting my own heart, and about being more cautious and getting verification earlier in the process when things don't seem right.

I also have a message for James, if he bothers to read this (and he might, I'm not sure): While you have tried to hurt me, for the sake of your own greed, I am not angry at you. In fact, I forgive you. This is because there is One who has already paid the price for every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit. Jesus gave His life on the Cross to forgive you and set you straight!

I will continue to pursue justice, and hope that the FBI catches you and stops you before you hurt anyone else. But even as you sit in jail (since as an interstate crime, this is a federal offense and a felony), I will pray that you find peace, and true purpose, and recognize the freedom that comes from being forgiven.

As for the rest of you: I'll continue to post updates (as comments to this blog) and let you know how things develop from here. Please do pray for James, and for anyone victimized by his greed. And thanks for listening!