Black Friday, business plans and the homeless

As I write this, the stock market is going crazy, buoyed by news that this weekend’s Black Friday retail sales increased 16 percent to reach a record $52 billion. I also am writing this post somewhat groggily, having stayed up all night to help with a hypothermia program for the homeless at Annandale United Methodist Church.

I could easily use this space to contrast our area’s homeless population with the affluence of Fairfax County where I live, or to juxtapose the start of our annual Christmas shopping frenzy with the fact that our nation’s poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent last year, the highest level since 1993. Last night, in fact, 60 Minutes did a heartbreaking piece on homeless children in central Florida.

But this post, ironically, is about the importance of business plans—turning your dreams and visions into a concrete reality.

One thing I have learned over the last three years of volunteering at homeless shelters and assisting with the work of groups like FACETS is that while the homeless may be down on their luck, they still have ambitions and dreams. They are not bums, low-life or any of the other derogatory stereotypes you often hear applied to them. This morning, when the group of about 35 men and women left Annandale UMC, over half the ones I talked to were headed to work. Imagine spending the night in a church basement, sleeping on the floor, and then getting up early the next morning to go to work without the comfort of a warm shower. Now you know what some of our homeless neighbors are up against.

One man I met last night, I’ll call him John, wants to start a bicycle shop. He’s spent years fixing up discarded bikes he finds in dumpsters. He has the experience and skills to tune up and repair bikes. And John says he already has a large clientele, people he’s given or sold bikes to over the years.

But what we also learned last night is that John doesn’t have a business plan. He has a notion that he could make a go of it if he were given a chance, but he hasn’t worked out the details of what that would look like. As I talked to John and listened to one of my AUMC friends counsel him on small business resources he might consider, I realized I had a lot to learn from his circumstances.

I may have one advantage over John: I have the financial resources to start my own PR business. But I don’t have a fully developed business plan. I know what services I can provide and how to pitch potential clients, but I don’t have a full-blown marketing plan, nor have I tried to forecast potential sales or growth.

I realized last night that I need to get serious about the planning part of my new endeavor. I also discovered in John a passion for his dream that I have to wonder if I possess. You could see in his body language that he really wants this. He’s willing to do the work and make the sacrifices to be successful. The lengths that he is willing to go in order to make his dream a reality were really quite touching.

I was reading a column on leadership the other day by John Baldoni about the importance of having both passion and compassion in our work. It’s a great reminder, particularly in this season of giving and receiving, that good leaders are both passionate and compassionate.

As Baldoni notes, striking a balance is the key: “Passion gets you up in the morning; it is the fuel that drives you to immerse yourself in your work and deliver results. Compassion is what you extend to others; it is the manifestation of caring and concern. Though these two concepts may not get equal time in the discussion of leadership, they are equally important.”

I would add that it’s important to turn your passion and compassion into reality through careful planning and execution. What I like so much about the mission work I do at AUMC is that we put into practice what we believe. Put bluntly by Baldoni: “It’s no good being compassionate if you never do anything for anyone.”

Put another way: If you don’t have a plan for what you want to do, it may never happen.

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