As the year comes to a close it is always good to look back on where we were, how far we have come and where we are headed in the New Year. The answers may surprise you. For us it has been a year of growth. We started the year with a goal, to find new Synergy Partners who shared our vision and wanted our programs and processes. This idea fostered a flurry of activity and because of the goal we did find success. New Synergy Partners have come on board and helped us grow. New products have opened opportunities for all of our reps. 2014 looks very promising indeed. And it was all because we said we would do it…and we did it.
With that in mind I wanted to share with you Alex Sheen’s story. Alex Sheen keeps his promises. He will inspire you to do the same.
Because I Said I Would
His inspirational message has changed the lives of people across the globe. How does Alex Sheen make a difference? Simple: by keeping his word.
By Gabbi Chee
It’s a September morning in Lakewood, Ohio, and Alex Sheen is sitting in his living room, waiting on the cable guy. The appointment window of 8 a.m. to noon has kept him from going to work as early as he’d planned. On the surface, it’s not a huge deal; he doesn’t have a rigid start time at the office. But he said he’d be there at 10:30, and when Sheen says he will do something, he doesn’t take it lightly.
The 28-year-old is the founder of Because I Said I Would, a nonprofit dedicated to “bettering humanity through the power of a promise.” To pass the time, he talks about the beginnings of the virtue-driven movement, which was inspired by the memory of his father.
Wei Min “Al” Sheen was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in July of 2011. He passed away on September 4, 2012, at the age of 55. His son, who was working for a software company at the time, went into the office the very next day, hoping to distract himself. Instead, he spent the day thinking about his father. He repeatedly came back to memories of Al getting angry, and it suddenly occurred to him that what routinely set his father off were people who failed to make good on their word. “It was an epiphany,” Sheen says.
He recalls being less than reliable himself—like in college, when he failed to pay tuition on time even after his dad had deposited the money in his bank account. “He was upset with me because he didn’t do that [kind of thing],” Sheen says. “He didn’t not show up. He didn’t not pay his bills.” Sheen spent a full hour trying to recall a single promise that his father had failed to keep. Coming up empty, he thought, If you can’t think of a single thing, that’s the lesson your dad was trying to teach you.
That night, Sheen went online. With a few clicks, a bit of typing, and a photo of himself and his father, he launched Because I Said I Would as an open Facebook group. The original post asked friends and family, who’d been offering condolences, to do something in memory of his dad: “Take a little promise in your life and keep it.”
A few days later, Sheen delivered a eulogy at his father’s funeral. As he pondered what to say, he was certain of one thing: He didn’t want people to leave the service unchanged. There had to be a way to keep his dad’s memory alive and, in doing so, make the lives of others better.
Sheen stuck to the concept of promise-keeping, but he knew it had to be more than mere words of encouragement on a Facebook page. “I became tied to this idea that I must hand these people something,” he says, leaning forward in his easy chair. It needed to be something useful, something that would help people remember their commitments. He came up with the notion of passing out business cards with the words “because I said I would” printed on the front in unassuming black type. The premise, which he outlined in his eulogy, was simple: Write a promise on a card—for example, “I will clean the garage,” “I will donate blood,” or “I will not hit the snooze button this week”—give it to another person, then get the card back after the promise is fulfilled. “It’s a reward,” Sheen says. “And why not? Why shouldn’t we reward ourselves with something so simple as a card to remind us that we are good with our word?” He handed out a few hundred cards at the funeral.
The cable guy arrives and finishes his repairs before noon. Sheen is finally free to leave for the office, but before he steps out the door he takes a closer look at the technician’s paperwork. “Service promise,” he says, pointing to the words inside a starburst at the top of the page. “See? It’s everywhere.”
Sheen never expected to end up in the nonprofit sector. That’s not typically the fate of a son whose practically penniless father emigrated to the States from Hong Kong at age 17. “When he came here, he had nothing,” Sheen says. But from nothing, his dad worked his way through college and built a career as a pharmacist. And he instilled in his two boys—Alex and his older brother, Greg—the value of hard work.
Sheen took business classes in high school and graduated from Ohio University in 2008 with a marketing degree. He was focused on landing a good job and establishing a stable career. “I wanted to make enough to where I could eat sushi every day and not worry about it,” Sheen says, only half-joking. At 6-foot-1, he has the athletic build of a former lacrosse player and kick boxer, but his friendly personality keeps him from coming across as intimidating. He has a way of setting people at ease, and he’s quick to follow up his own jokes with booming laughter.
Cleveland-based Hyland Software was no doubt attracted to that charisma, and within a year of Sheen’s graduation the company hired him as a marketing intelligence specialist. Less than five years later, he was the youngest manager among its 1,500 employees. But his promise-card idea quickly took on a life all its own, and Sheen left his job in the spring of this year to pursue Because I Said I Would full-time.
The day before his father’s funeral in 2012, Sheen published a post on the Facebook group saying he would send 10 promise cards, free of charge, to the first 100 people who messaged him their address. The idea resonated right off the bat. Thanks to the mysteriously far-flung nature of the Internet, Sheen soon found himself sending cards to complete strangers. “I handwrote the addresses and handwrote letters” in response to each request, he says. It quickly became apparent that he could not limit his output to a mere 100 people. Within a month, the cards were being distributed internationally.
Amanda Messer, Because I Said I Would’s chief volunteer, remembers those eruptive early days. The soft-spoken Messer has the nonprofit’s trademark slogan tattooed on the underside of her left forearm. She and Sheen were co-workers at Hyland, and about a month after the founding of Because I Said I Would, as the movement began to draw worldwide attention, Messer offered to help. The organization’s mission struck a familiar, if slightly modified, chord. “I had the opposite experiences that Alex did,” she says. “My dad never kept his promises, and he still doesn’t. That’s always been the No. 1 pet peeve of mine: People who don’t follow through.”
Messer helped ship promise cards. “There were, like, 400 pending requests at that time, which now is pretty laughable,” she says. “I think we’re 5,000 behind right now.”
Evidence of that backlog is all over what Sheen calls the “global headquarters” of Because I Said I Would. There are three desks in the office, each one groaning under stacks of paper, envelopes, boxes of promise cards, and T-shirts. On the floor, fabric crates and plastic bins overflow with packages ready to be postmarked. A bookshelf near the door is crammed with packing materials in addition to books like The Innovator’s Toolkit and How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Given the mess, Debbie Ward, one of the afternoon’s volunteers, turns out to be a godsend. After labeling a few hundred envelopes filled with promise cards, she checks in with Sheen. “I have a card for you,” she says warmly. Ward works as an organizational consultant, and her promise card to Sheen reads, “I will help organize Alex’s office.”
People use promise cards to document all kinds of commitments. Users have posted on the Facebook page their vows to mail a long-overdue letter, to stand by a relative in a time of crisis, to stop cutting themselves. The idea of holding fast to a commitment is one that crosses cultural lines, too. Because I Said I Would has sent promise cards to more than 48 countries; some of this week’s packages are headed for Qatar, Argentina, Madagascar, and Malaysia. That global reach can be chalked up to Sheen’s compelling message and his keen understanding of social media.
In addition to flooding the world with promise cards, Sheen periodically takes on more high-profile philanthropic endeavors. They help him practice what he preaches and draw attention to the nonprofit and its mission. The Because I Said I Would office walls are decorated with framed photographs that document these projects. There’s one of children from Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada reacting in delighted surprise to the announcement that Sheen had raised money to send 100 kids to Disneyland. Two larger images capture Sheen’s 10-day, 240-mile walk across Ohio in support of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, the three women abused and held captive by Ariel Castro in a residence just six miles from Sheen’s own home.
Raising awareness for other nonprofits is one of the core imperatives of Sheen’s philanthropic work. For example, during the walk across Ohio he raised funds for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). In all of it, the message that never gets lost is the importance of keeping a promise, which is why Sheen pushes out news about his work through social media and sites like Reddit, hoping to score hits.
“I’m one dude, right? So if it doesn’t go viral, what can one dude do?” he says earnestly. “If I want to have a greater impact, I’ll influence others and motivate them to head in that direction.” It goes back to an Albert Einstein quote that Sheen strongly believes in: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.”