MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's just one day left in 2013, and many of us are thinking about our New Year's resolutions. Now those are promises we're making to ourselves and our loved ones about changing our lives. Social entrepreneur Alex Sheen has turned keeping promises into a year-round mission. He is the founder of the nonprofit group Because I Said I Would. The organization supports various public service projects, and it also encourages people to make and keep commitments. And Alex Sheen is with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.
ALEX SHEEN: Happy New Year, and thank you so much for having me on.
MARTIN: What exactly does your organization do?
SHEEN: We are a nonprofit organization - a social movement dedicated to commitments, to promises, to bettering humanity through those promises. When you look at a lot of social issues in our society, a lot of them can be solved by our own personal commitments and what we do on an everyday basis.
MARTIN: And, you know, I hate to start with sad, but this wasn't - how can I put this - your first choice for a career - that you actually had a prior career at a software company, and something made your priorities change. Do you mind telling us about that?
SHEEN: Yeah, I was a corporate strategy lead at a large software company. But my father, he got sick. He was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, stage 4. It was really close to his heart. And my father was diagnosed on July 4 in 2011. And on September 4 of 2012, he passed away. As I reflected on my father's life, I was asked to give his eulogy. And I thought about, you know, the greatest things about my father. And one thing I came to realize is that he was always good with his word. You know, if dad says he's going to be there, he shows up.
And as I was writing his eulogy, I decided to title it "Because I Said I Would." And I shared the importance of his promises. I actually handed out, for the first time, what would be called a promise card - just a small piece of paper that says "Because I said I would" on it - nothing else. And you write your promises on that card, and you use it as a tool to remember how truly important your commitments are. So that's really how all of this started.
MARTIN: Did your dad used to say that to you? I mean, is that something that - a phrase or something that was kind of part of your family language?
SHEEN: You know, not as much of him saying, specifically, because I said I would. But I think my dad said a lot of times, you said you would do this, you know, 'cause as his son, I don't think I really took my commitments as seriously as I needed to. You know, you're a kid, but he was trying to teach me that. And I think some of his frustration is actually what the lesson was, is that dad, you know, he stayed true to his commitments. And it's not that hard, as long as you take that as a life philosophy.
MARTIN: You passed out these promise cards at your dad's funeral to honor his memory. How did that work exactly? I mean, what were people supposed to do with them?
SHEEN: The first way that you use a promise card - the first way that I kind of explained it to my friends and family that day was to write a promise on the card, to give it to someone, and tell them I'm going to fulfill this promise and when I do, I get this card back. I'm going to earn it back. It belongs to me - and to fulfill that promise, to get the card back and keep it as a reminder that you're a person of your word. Now these could be small promises, commitments that maybe you kind of sweep under the rug, little things. Or they could be big goals, life goals or New Year's promises that really are meaningful to the way we live our lives.
MARTIN: If people are saying to them, I've heard this someplace, I'm going to turn to why they might have heard of this before. And that's because in September, a video of a young man who killed someone in a drunk-driving accident went viral. And I just want to play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "I KILLED A MAN")
MATTHEW CORDLE: My name is Matthew Cordle. And on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani. This video will act as my confession. When I get charged, I will plead guilty and take full responsibility for everything I've done to Vincent and his family.
MARTIN: And he holds up a card at one point saying I will take full responsibility for what I've done. And that was one of your cards, wasn't it?
SHEEN: Yeah, that was actually a card that I handed to Matt personally. Because I Said I Would filmed and produced that video, and released it at Matt's wishes. And it was, you know, certainly one of the heavier uses for a commitment in his life.
MARTIN: And he was charged, and he was convicted.
SHEEN: Absolutely. Actually, prior to the video, there were no charges pressed against Matt, but it went viral pretty quickly. And the prosecutor's office moved swiftly. And because Matt didn't put up any resistance to that prosecution, he was convicted in a pretty short order for six and a half years in prison, which he's currently serving.
MARTIN: It's so profound in a way. You played such an important role in something, but you're not the one who has to live with the consequence of it. And I'm just interested in how you sit with that.
SHEEN: This is a very important question. It's something that I truly reflected on very deeply prior to creating the video and releasing it. You know, it's not like Matt messaged me and the next day, I was knocking on his door. I got to know him for almost a month to really, truly understand if this was what he intended to do. I demanded that I get on the phone with his attorneys to hear - for Matt to hear, for me to know, that he understood the consequences of his actions. And at some point, it's a man's decision to make a difference. And that's what he decided to do.
MARTIN: It's a fascinating thing that you've done. You know, there are so many stereotypes about people your age - if you don't mind my - I'm sure you've heard it all.
SHEEN: No. It's all right.
MARTIN: So I'm not telling you anything new. But, you know, slackers and, you know, not willing to commit, and, you know, you don't even want to commit to an RSVP. You know, people tell you on Facebook they're going to show up, and then they don't. And this whole...
MARTIN: ...Thing. And I wonder if you kind of feel like you are at the beginning of a culture shift, in a way. Like, you feel like you're striking a blow for people being, you know, being true to their word. Or do you think something is happening as a result of what you're doing?
SHEEN: I do. And I think that the start of that is actually myself. I think about my father. And I really, really wish I could tell him that I finally got it. And that's never going to happen, but I can set an example for the people I work with, the kids I speak to, to, you know, my friends and family. That the importance of a promise is something that we can all be a part of, and it doesn't have to be who we were, but it's who we can be.
MARTIN: You were telling us that you don't like New Year's resolutions. Why not?
SHEEN: A New Year's resolution - I guess, it's a phrase that I don't like because if you go down the street in March sometime and you ask someone, what's your New Year's resolution? They might laugh in your face 'cause they've either forgotten it, it wasn't important, they've fallen short of it. It's almost the butt of a joke. And I think that's a little bit unfortunate because we feel so much hope, ambition and energy on the night of New Year's Eve. And we tell ourselves that this is going to be the year that, you know, we do it. And somewhere along the line, the commitment fails.
And that's why I'm actually trying to create a trend where we stop calling it a New Year's resolution 'cause a New Year's resolution is dead. Call it a New Year's promise 'cause you can fall short of a resolution. You can forget a goal, perhaps. But breaking a promise, it's a different thing, and it should be.
MARTIN: So what are you going to do for New Year's, if you don't mind my asking?
SHEEN: No, it's all right. I'm actually running a multi-city event. It'll be happening in states across the country that will host New Year's promise walls. What this is is a big wall that has the promise card actually printed on there. And you go up there and you write your promise for everyone to see. And last year, we did this at six different locations, in Cleveland where I live, but we're expanding it across the country. And it's very interesting to see people's goals. Some of them are small, some of them are funny, some of them are very serious.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask if you have any promises for the new year?
SHEEN: Well, in 2013, I actually did a New Year's promise - a very kind of difficult one I guess, but it was actually in 52 parts. What I did was write a promise on 52 different cards, and each week on Sunday, I would randomly select a card and have one week to fulfill that promise. Well, I'm, you know, done with that, and now it's time to look to 2014. I want to take it to another level. And so in 2014, I will volunteer at a different nonprofit organization every week for 52 weeks.
MARTIN: OK, well, keep us posted. Love to talk to you again about that and see how it's going. Alex Sheen is the founder of the nonprofit Because I Said I Would. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Alex, thank you so much for joining us, and happy New Year to you.
SHEEN: Happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.