Start the Weekend Right Link Series – Volume #3, Edition #1

It has been a long time since I posted one of these Start the Weekend Right Link Series entries. But I have too many posts building up behind the scenes on this blog and in my Feedly reader so I need to start clearing them out and getting them out there for you to consume. Before you check out of work and begin whatever celebrations you’ll be involved with this Easter weekend, take a look at some of these links – I think you might enjoy this content.

Before we get to the links this week I again recommend signing up for a free Feedly account. I get absolutely no kickback for promoting Feedly, but I’m so appreciative of their product being the best RSS reader on the internet that I encourage everyone to use it. If you’re using another RSS aggregator, please consider following JerseySmarts.com at http://www.jerseysmarts.com/feed/. If you’re already on Feedly, then you can follow us by clicking here. Thanks!

No, You Are Not “Running Late,” You Are Rude And Selfish, Vitamin T
The message of this article is, as the title alludes to, that all of those times you or a coworker comes to a meeting late are not driven by outside factors, but rather by the fact that you’re a rude person. And on top of that rudeness, you’re a selfish punk who only cares about themselves. Personally, I agree with the message here, but living in New Jersey drops more than a few grains of salt on this article. When I was in college, I knew a kid who showed up to all of his classes late – and always with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in his hand. He was a rude, selfish idiot. On the other hand, I’ve seen people arrive to work (and even meetings and appointments) over an hour late because of the completely ridiculous nature of the traffic and road construction in most of this state.

Death By Degrees, n+1
The best preview I can give for this article is this quote that is taken from it: “Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.”

Manual Labor, All Night Long: The Reality of Paying for College, The Atlantic
Typically, the commentaries that The Atlantic publishes are too buried in far left talking points (and shoddy ones, no less) that I can’t find the usefulness of their content. This article is a little bit different, though I don’t take the same bleeding heart stance as some of the folks quoted in the article. In short, the article talks about how some students opt to work an overnight shift to get tuition reimbursement for their local college. I believe the writer’s stance is along the lines of how we could allow this type of near-torture for someone who wants to get a higher education. As someone with a deep history in student loans, I don’t often feel bad for others who have to go through difficulty to get a degree. My comment on this topic, though, is that we should be looking at the larger educational system and why we push nearly all high school students to pursue a college degree when many of them should be pushed towards vocational and technical schools instead.

An unusual victory for donor intent at Trinity College, The Pope Center
One of the topics that I love following is how a donor’s intent is followed – or completely ignored – by organizations that are the recipients of the donor’s financial contributions. Martin Morse Wooster details a recent victory for donors that took place at Trinity College. This is really fascinating stuff (or at least I think so). And if you’re an active donor to your church, college, or any other cause, then I encourage you to give this article a read.

Google rethinks Google+, spinning off several successful pieces, Christian Science Monitor
Goodbye, Google+! Several years ago I wrote about how I was shutting down several of my social media accounts (MySpace and LinkedIn) because it was just becoming too much to handle and all I really needed was Facebook. As the years went by and Google tried to shove Google+ down our throats, I had to open up one of their silly accounts and – like the majority of their users, apparently – I almost never used it. Now, hopefully, Google will retreat from social media and I can put that silly, useless Google+ profile to rest!

Homeless man of deep faith given funeral, burial in Vatican City, American Catholic
I just thought this was a touching story and a reminder that there are good people out there who will do good things for people of devotion. I’d like to believe that this homeless man’s soul was received into glory with the same reverence that his body was received by the Vatican.

A New Life for Dead Malls, The Atlantic
Alright, so The Atlantic gets two mentions this week because this story is just awesome. I’ve written on here in the past about how I can go nuts trying to use all of my “stuff” before buying new things. For me, it’s not a matter of frugality, but rather a matter of not generating the need to create additional products and/or waste to give me something that I already have possession of in one form or another. That’s the point of this article – that old, dead malls are actively being repurposed for a wide variety of uses – and it’s pretty cool!

7 Basic Life Hacks Men Shouldn’t Ignore, Return of Kings
Simply put – if you’re a guy and you’re reading this, then you should stop and click over to Return of Kings to read this article. It’s excellent, direct, and gives you good advice on what you should be doing to improve yourself. Some of the advice that the writer offers includes reading daily, working out, eating right, and not watching porn. Each of these “life hacks” have intensely positive outcomes for you as a man and when combined they can lead to a dramatically improved life. Take five minutes and give it a read.

Before you go, I want to recommend one more time that you consider opening a free Feedly account. You can follow JerseySmarts.com on Feedly or you can add us to your existing RSS aggregator. Enjoy!

Sigma Pi’s Chapter Educational Fund Program is an Ideal Donation Option

While I understand that this entry may only apply to my brothers in Sigma Pi Fraternity, their families, and the friends of our fraternity, I think it also serves as a good discussion of why certain tax-deductible donations are better than others. Below, I’m going to argue that a donation to the Sigma Pi Educational Foundation‘s Chapter Educational Fund program is a great option for fraternity alumni because the dollars are more flexible and they can go further over a longer period of time.

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Several years ago, the Sigma Pi Educational Foundation (the Foundation) started a program to create Chapter Educational Funds (CEF). Before we talk about what a CEF is and what it can do for you and your chapter, you should know that the Foundation is a 501c3 tax-exempt organization. This means that donations made to the Foundation are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law. In other words, if you write a check to the Foundation for $5, $50, or $5,000, then all of those funds can be list as charitable contributions when you or your accountant prepares your deductions for the tax year.

Sigma Pi Fraternity (the Fraternity) and the Foundation have done a lot of research over the years. For the Foundation, that research was focused on what it could do to entice more of our 50,000+ living alumni to donate for the advancement of the Fraternity. In 2003, the Foundation commissioned a report from a third party group to ascertain – among other goals – whether it could raise significant funds from our alumni base to support national programs. The report gave the Foundation many results, including the fact that most alumni want to find a way to support their local chapter more so than the national organization.

Several years later in 2010, the Foundation again studied what Sigma Pi alumni felt strongly about as it put together its strategic plan. During the focus groups and outreach in 2010 it was clear, again, that our alumni love Sigma Pi and would love for the Foundation to provide an option that allowed them to donate for the benefit of their local chapter. This finding would be one of the many outcomes in late 2011 when another third party group researched the prospects of raising significant funds to support national programs.

The message is clear – Sigma Pi alumni are willing and able to donate to the Foundation. They prefer that those donations help their local chapters succeed.

The Foundation has always welcomed those individual alumni or groups of alumni who seek to set up a scholarship to honor a living mentor or as a memorial to a brother who has passed away. In fact, the Foundation awards several national honorarium and memorial scholarships each year. Yet, the research showed that the Fraternity’s alumni wanted to donate to something more directly aligned with their local chapter. Thus was born the CEF program.

The CEF program allows a group of local alumni – called a Local Advisory Committee (LAC) – to create a specific fund at the Foundation where money donated to that fund is used solely for the benefit of their local chapter. Like a traditional Foundation scholarship, a CEF can allow the LAC to award scholarships to members of their local chapter. Yet, a CEF is a more flexible tool to help the local chapter improve because of the other various uses of donated funds. In addition to scholarships, a CEF may provide fellowships for graduate members of a chapter to pursue advanced degrees or professional development programs.

Any use that is academic or educational in nature is an allowable use of money donated to a CEF.

In the recent past, CEFs have been used to provide full reimbursements of registration fees for undergraduates to attend Sigma Pi University (now called Sigma Pi UIFI). Similarly, CEFs have been used to provide full reimbursement of travel costs for undergraduates to attend the Mid-Year Leadership Conference as well as Sigma Pi University. On a more local level, CEFs have been used to pay for the event reservation fees and food costs for academic and leadership training breakfasts and luncheons hosted on-campus where instruction is provided by highly-qualified local alumni and/or invited guest speakers. In other words, if your chapter’s alumni want to host an annual brunch for your undergraduates where you can instruct the undergraduates on issues related to their academic and/or educational growth, then you can pay for the costs of that event through donations to your local CEF.

A CEF can also be used to purchase academic or educational equipment for the chapter. What does that mean? Well, it means if your chapter owns a chapter house and there is space for a library or study area in the house, then funds donated to a CEF can be used to outfit that space with academic equipment (i.e. computers, software, and networking needs).

The uses stated above are what can be achieved when money that you donate to your local CEF is granted (i.e. given away) to a specific cause. However, if you opt to keep the funds in the CEF (i.e. you’re not granting them away), then the flexibility of your CEF increases.

In this option, money donated to a CEF can be used to provide a loan to the local chapter, alumni club, or housing corporation to make improvements to a chapter house. The breadth and scope of those improvements do not have the same academic and educational limitations as when money is granted from the CEF because in this instance, the money in the CEF isn’t being given away. Instead, an LAC may request a loan from its CEF for any housing-related reason including making immediate quality-of-life repairs to a chapter house, building an addition on to an existing chapter house, or even helping a chapter purchase a new house. In those scenarios where a loan is provided by your CEF, the LAC should expect a full underwriting and approval process – just like getting a loan from a local bank. Typically, interest will accrue on the loan at a rate agreed upon by the LAC and the Foundation and the CEF will have to pay an origination fee (which can be negotiated). Unlike a bank, however, it is typical for half of the interest that is paid by the borrower to be placed back into the chapter’s CEF and for the other half of the interest to be paid to the Foundation, which helps it operate (once the interest funds are put back into the CEF, they can be used for the same purposes noted above). Several Sigma Pi chapters around the country currently have loans outstanding from their CEFs with similar repayment terms.

There are some other ins and outs that an alumnus or group of alumni need to know before opening a CEF, but those issues can be better discussed directly with the Foundation. What is important to understand is that if you want your chapter to have an annual scholarship or some academic fellowships, if you would like to see your chapter’s registration fees and travel costs to attend most national conferences fully reimbursed, or if you’d like to see your chapter receive a loan (where they’re actually getting a portion of the interest back!) to address housing issues, then you really should consider the Foundation’s CEF program.

Thoughts Around Being an Alumni Volunteer for Sigma Pi

Another version of this commentary was published on Sigma Pi Fraternity’s The Emerald Online.

This is an entry that really only applies to my brothers in Sigma Pi Fraternity and, more specifically, those members who have graduated and gone on to become alumni volunteers for the Fraternity. In this piece, I provide my two golden rules of alumni volunteering as well as some thoughts around each of those rules. The ideas below are not just applicable to Sigma Pi Fraternity, they are also applicable to any organization where there is a mentor/mentee relationship between individuals or groups.

This is my current group of undergraduates at Monmouth and they're awesome!

This is my current group of undergraduates at Monmouth and they’re awesome!

In May 2003, I graduated from Monmouth University (MU) and became an officially recognized alumni member of Sigma Pi Fraternity (the Fraternity). Like most brand new alumni, I didn’t have much thought about involvement in the Fraternity’s actions after my graduation. I knew that I wanted to attend the upcoming leadership training school because it was being held in Vincennes, Indiana – the birthplace of the Fraternity. Other than that half-week trip, though, I had no plans to be involved in Sigma Pi in any future way.

During that visit to the leadership school, I talked with the Executive Director of the national organization and he encouraged me to immediately become my chapter’s local advisor, a position known as the Chapter Director. Back at MU, our Chapter Director was also our Faculty Advisor and he had held both positions since our colony was founded back in 1989. And while our Chapter Director was a phenomenal Faculty Advisor (he would go on to win Sigma Pi’s first-ever Dr. Robert Burns Most Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award and numerous #1 Faculty Advisor Awards on MU’s campus), he never played the role of Chapter Director. After a brief conversation with the Faculty Advisor and at the encouragement of the Executive Director along with the support of the undergraduates (especially the President of the Chapter), I became my local chapter’s new Chapter Director in August 2003.

The August 2003 decision to become an alumni volunteer for the Fraternity has lasted until the present-day and, God-willing, well into the future. Among other volunteer positions for the Fraternity, I’ve served as a Chapter Director at two different campuses (MU and, for a short while, I held the position at William Paterson University), an advisor to my chapter’s alumni club, the Province Archon for New Jersey, a Trustee for the Sigma Pi Educational Foundation, the Treasurer of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and – perhaps most importantly – as a mentor for graduating seniors and young alumni from my chapter. Last February, I was asked to take the various experiences that I’ve gathered as an alumni volunteer and provide a half-day training on alumni volunteering at the Fraternity’s Mid-Year Leadership Conference in St. Louis, Missouri (an invitation which was extended again this year and which I’ve accepted again). I immediately agreed and then began combing through my various experiences, perspectives, and training materials to build the best program that I could for my fellow volunteers from around the nation.

Through that process, I discovered that I’ve operated off of two golden rules during my time as alumni volunteer. Those two rules are:

     1. It isn’t about YOU.

     2. It’s NOT story time.

The first rule that a good alumni volunteer needs to understand is that his position is not about him, his feelings, his wants, or his desires. At its core, this perspective may be counterintuitive to what alumni volunteers believe when they agree to take the position. Most alumni volunteers want to remain involved with the Fraternity because they remember the good times and great relationships that they built as undergraduates. Others want to stay involved because they believe that they can help the chapter improve upon its programs that were operated when he was an undergraduate. The majority of an alumnus’ good, happy experiences with the Fraternity are generated from people and events where they, individually, could be the focus.

That cannot be the case when you are an alumni volunteer. When you agree to become an alumni volunteer, you are agreeing that the focus of your fraternal actions will no longer be about you.

Instead, the focus of your fraternal actions as an alumni volunteer must always be about the undergraduates. Your role – your purpose – is no longer to view the issues that created your love of the Fraternity from a perspective of personal gain or even one of personal involvement. As an alumni volunteer, you have to ensure that those connections are made available and strengthened for the benefit of future generations. This is often a hard pill for new alumni volunteers to swallow, yet adhering to a perspective of providing the most good to the undergraduates is the best way to ensure that you are acting truly as an alumni volunteer and not as someone who wants to hang around campus to exert some personally-identified influence on or even control over the chapter.

The second rule is that being an alumni volunteer is not story time. Again, this is a bitter pill for many alumni volunteers to swallow. At the core of this rule is the interactions that you have as a volunteer with your undergraduates. This can be something as simple as an undergraduate asking, “Hey, what should I do about Bob? He hasn’t paid his dues and he won’t return my text messages.” The incorrect answer would start off this way: “Well, when I was the chapter’s Treasurer…” or, “When I was an undergraduate we used to…”

What happened in that response? Not only does the alumni volunteer attempt to “answer” the question by providing a story, but they immediately make their interaction with the undergraduate about themselves and their experiences versus the undergraduate and his current experience. The undergraduate did NOT ask the alumni volunteer about what he did when he was in charge – he asked what he, as the current chapter leader, should do to resolve this situation. The proper response from the alumni volunteer would include different options that are available to the undergraduate given the structure of the national organization and the rules of the local chapter. If an example is a best way to answer the question, then the alumni volunteer might consider providing an example of how another chapter handles this problem – if he is aware of any examples.

There is an important point in the last sentence of the previous paragraph – that is, the alumni volunteer exists to provide answers and guidance. The alumni volunteer doesn’t exist to tell stories about his glory days. The most immediate and lasting way to become irrelevant to an undergraduate is to answer their questions by telling them your own experiences. Not only do you violate both of the golden rules noted above, but the undergraduates no longer see you as a source of relevant information. Rather, they will begin to see interactions with you as a chore that they have to endure every once in a while.

I’m confident that some alumni volunteers are out there reading this and are aware enough to recognize that they engage in story time when they answer their undergraduates’ questions. Most of those folks will think to themselves, “Well, Joe is full of it. My undergraduates enjoy my stories and it helps them build a better chapter.” To those few with that mindset, let me assure you – your undergraduates don’t enjoy your stories. As a national Fraternity, we bring in such a high caliber of young man that they’re too nice and too reverent of our alumni base that most of them won’t be honest with you and tell you that you’re boring the life out of them. Remember, if you’re advising through telling stories, then you’re already irrelevant to your undergraduates so you shouldn’t expect them to be truthful with you about how much your stories bore them.

If you make the focus of your interactions with the undergraduates about them and you provide answers to their questions, a funny (yet logical) thing may happen: the undergraduates will seek your advice more often. You’ll be viewed as a source of solutions. You’ll become the literal answer to their problems. Becoming that source of solutions, the answer to their problems, is what builds the bond between you and your undergraduates over not just a year or two, but over generations. Your current chapter leaders will tell your newly-elected chapter leaders that they should rely on you for guidance. You’ll receive the type of word-of-mouth recommendations that money can’t buy for an alumni volunteer.

And all it takes is to make the undergraduates the focus of your work as a volunteer.

Square-Enix Fails The Most Basic Customer Service Request

Once upon a time (15 – 20 years ago), I used to be a big fan of video games. These days, I just don’t have the time or the desire to sit down and really get into a game. Back then, I loved playing role playing games (RPG) like the Final Fantasy series and its many spinoffs. I remember when Final Fantasy 7 came out for PlayStation and it was groundbreaking at the time. The visuals were amazing and the game play was deep. Everyone wanted to follow the story of Cloud and Sephiroth – it was an intense story for the gaming community!

ff-7-banner

With a history as an engaged RPG gamer you might have predicted that I was really excited when I heard that during last week’s Cyber Monday sale, Square-Enix was offering Final Fantasy 7 for a ridiculously low price. In fact, Square put pretty much their entire collection on sale at prices that were 60% off. It was crazy!

But you might imagine my surprise when I tried to purchase a few downloadable versions of some classic Final Fantasy games only to be met with an error screen on the Square website. I tried to purchase those downloads for about an hour and a half and just couldn’t get past the error screen.

It was the most frustrating experience you could imagine.

Or at least it was the most frustrating experience you could imagine until I contacted Square’s help line to see if they could help me with problem I encountered. And lucky for you folks, I’ve saved the entire back and forth conversation for you to read and most likely be disgusted by as I was disgusted. Here’s how the e-mail conversation started:

I tried to purchase both Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 PC editions during your Cyber Monday sale, but the order form on the website kept coming up with an error message. Is it possible to still buy those two games and the Cyber Monday prices? I’m a long-time Square fan and I hope that you understand my frustration when I could have gotten these two games at a great price, but your website wouldn’t work for me. Thanks.

I think I was pretty rational and calm in that query. Here is Square’s first awful response:

Thank you for contacting the Square Enix online store. We apologize for the inconvenience. We show that the Cyber sale already ended. Please attempt a new order. To place a new order, go to: http://store.na.square-enix.com/store/sqenixus/en_US/ResetShoppingCart

Ugh… talk about a useless, non-response. If I owned Square-Enix and I saw that this was the response that one of my customer service people sent back to the question that I posed, I’d fire them for not being able to comprehend basic English or customer intent. Here is my response to Square:

It appears that you didn’t listen to my concern. The items that I wanted to buy were on sale during your Cyber Monday sale. Your website did not work during your Cyber Monday sale. I tried to purchase the items several times during your Cyber Monday sale and your website would not work. This is false advertising and is against the law in America.

I’m asking that you recognize that your website – not me or anything on my end – but your website failed during the period that your sale was active. And as an act of repentance for your website failing during your sale, I’ve asked that you offer me the two games that I was attempting to purchase for the price that they were offered during the failure of your website.

The response you provided doesn’t address any of those points. Please try again.

I mean – I can’t be any clearer in that response, can I? Well, get ready for more useless help from Square. This was their response:

Thank you for contacting the Square Enix online store. We apologize for the inconvenience this issue may have caused you.

Unfortunately, we are no longer able to place an order for the price on the Cyber Monday promotion. You may need to complete the order at the current price that is showing online. However, we can submit a request to match the promotional price once the order has been completed. Please be reminded that this request is not a guarantee the the price will be matched.

If you wanted to place an order, you may do so. Once it is completed, please provide the promotional offer information that details the price you are referring to.

That’s right, folks – Square’s response to my request was to tell me to buy the products at full price and then request that I be offered the promotional price… after I made the purchases! In what world does that make sense? Well, I attempted to explain this to the dopes at Square:

This isn’t an acceptable resolution to the problem. You certainly wouldn’t accept my “conditional” payment and forward me the software with the condition being that I’m only sending you the money if I get the discount that your broken website wouldn’t allow me to get on Cyber Monday. You’d be fools to give away your product on the hope that I was going to pay in full just like I’d be a fool to pay you in full with the hope that you’d live up to meeting the sale price (which, let’s be honest, you absolutely wouldn’t do).

So this has been a useless interaction for me. I look forward to sharing it with my fellow gamers and folks who have generally been disenfranchised by a once-great company.

They haven’t/didn’t respond to my last e-mail, but that’s okay. The steep decline in the popularity of their now-craptastic Final Fantasy series speaks volumes to how far this company has fallen. People used to line up outside of stores to get the latest Final Fantasy games. Now? Well, fan backlash was so strong against Final Fantasy 14 that it forced Square to take the game off of the market and totally recreate the product. When your company has fallen that far, it’s no wonder that your customer “service” team isn’t able to meet the type of simple request that I asked in my question.

Oh how the mighty have fallen…

Quick Thoughts on Voting During Last Week’s Election

This may be a bit of a delayed reaction, but I enjoyed voting in last week’s election. What made last week’s election different for me is that this was my first time voting as a registered voter in Monmouth County. Up until I bought my house last spring, I was registered at my family’s home in Morris County. As you might deduce, this created an annual problem where I had to drive all the way up to Morris County (and near the Sussex County border, no less!) to vote on Election Day. Sure, I could have registered to vote in Monmouth County when I began renting my most recent apartment, but I never had the security of knowing whether or not I would be in that one place for a long period of time so I never made the change.

What I enjoyed about voting last week (besides the 3 minute commute to my polling place) was that I had a chance to vote for candidates that will have some level of impact on me and my immediate community. Again, as a guy who has been voting in Morris County for the last 15 years, the people that I’ve been voting for have largely not been the Mayors, Town Councilors, Board of Education members, State Legislators, and Congressmen who have a direct impact on the community where I actually live. Last Tuesday, the votes that I cast were different in that they have a direct relationship to my daily life.

And the American in me enjoys the fact that I get to vote in the first place! Unlike most folks out there, I enjoy voting for people from both sides of the aisle – which I did last Tuesday. One of the great things about this country is that we have a choice. Frankly, I wish we had more that two viable choices and I really wish that the Libertarian and Constitutional Parties would grow to become larger players in American politics. But that’s okay – the people are beginning to realize that there are more than two answers to every political question and that it’s not such a bad idea to get people with different ideas involved.

As for the results from last week’s elections, well I didn’t think it was any big surprise. Of course the Republicans were going to run away with the Senate and increase their lead in the House – the majority of the places and states in this country are center-right and every political map proves that point. Yes, the cities and urban areas vote heavily Democratic and that’s where the President has his most ardent supporters, but most of this country isn’t filled with cities and urban areas. Thus the results from last week are no big surprise.

Plus, I’m a big believer in divided government. We have a Democratic President and I think it’s a good idea to have a Republican Congress to check his power. I thought the same thing when President George W. Bush was in charge – a Democratic Congress was good for him to have to collaborate with the other side (which he did very well at the beginning of his first term as well). The biggest “check” that I think will come out of the Republican Congress is their ability to conduct fuller investigations in the Senate. The talking heads on television suggest that there are a variety of scandals brewing from Benghazi to the fast and furious gun running issue to immigration and now to the fact that there were blatant lies told to the American people in order to get the Affordable Care Act passed.

While those are all issues that deserve fuller investigations, what I’m looking forward to knowing more about is the IRS targeting scandal. Folks, if the accusations are true – that the IRS targeted individuals and groups that they disagreed with politically – then that is going to be the biggest scandal in the history of American politics up through our lifetimes, I guaranty it. This is the exact type of issue that the colonists rebelled against back in the late 1700s and it’s the exact type of issue that makes our government ineffective in the 2010s. So… that’s what I’m looking forward to from the new Congress: a true investigation into the IRS targeting scandal.