One of my secret pleasures is watching the show “Chopped” show on the Food Network. Today I watched an episode that just had me bawling at the end. It was the most heartwarming show I’ve ever seen. And it reminded me of why all of you do the work that you do in the social benefit sector.
So please allow me to share.
I don’t know if I can adequately convey the pathos I felt, but if you’ve had a chance to see this episode I would strongly recommend it. It will make you feel very good. At the same time, it will make you understand — even more than ever — how much work there is to be done.
Your work is essential. And I want you to do it as if you believe this – deep down in your gut.
I think there’s a lesson in this show that can help. If you’ve seen the show you know that there are four chefs who compete in three rounds to be the best chef overall. Each round they are given a “mystery basket” with four ingredients. They have to use every single one of them. Plus they have to transform them in some way.
Ah… the transformative power of adding a dose of creativity plus commitment and focus to something you care about deeply.
There are episodes with celebrity chefs, home cooks, ball park cooks, you name it. This episode featured school cooks, also known as “lunch ladies.”
These ladies were extraordinary. Each of them came from fairly low income school districts, where most of the kids did not reliably know where their next meal was coming from. For many, their school lunch was their only hot nutritious meal of the day. The parents of these kids relied on the lunch ladies to assure their kids thrived.
These women were absolutely dedicated to making sure their kids not only had healthy food, but that they learned about nutrition and food so they could have healthy lifestyles. In fact, two of the lunch ladies had struggled with life-threatening obesity themselves. So they did whatever they could think of to make sure these kids did not end up in a similar situation.
One of them played a game with the kids during the lunch hour, where they learned things that they had to know for the state exams. The kids just thought it was a lot of fun; they had no idea they were learning! Another, had a cooking class after school. She noted that many of these kids were home alone a lot, and this class helped them have a place to go plus learn survival skills so they could take care of themselves. Another had a greenhouse out back and let the kids work in the greenhouse and learn about food from seed to table.
The winner would get $10,000. One of the ladies worked three jobs, and her husband did as well. So this was a big deal. Another had already pledged to buy computers for her school. All of them wanted their kids to know that if you try hard you can be anything you want to be. And they wanted their kids to see that they were fighting for them.
One of the chefs told a story about a day when a little boy came up to her and said “Miss Cindy. this is going to be the only food I get all day.” As she told this tale, you could see tears spring to the eyes of the judges’ panel.
One chef said “the Lord has shined on me and I need to shine back.”
After watching this episode, I began to think about what I found so compelling. The cause, of course, is one that gets to most people. Hunger is a terrible problem in the world and in the United States. I used to work for a food bank in San Francisco and, even in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, one out of four people is hungry. It’s mind boggling.
But it wasn’t just the cause. There are lots of compelling causes out there. The more I thought about it, the more I came to understand what got to my heart so much. It was the passion these women had for their work and their mission.
Passion like that is contagious.
It’s what I always tell people is the number one thing they need to be an effective fundraiser: You’ve got to get in touch with your own passion.
I know it sounds obvious and simple, but all too often I find that people lose sight of what attracted them to the mission in the first place. They get bogged down with the politics and the work load and the stress and the bureaucracy. They cease to be productive because they cease to be passionate.
Lack of passion is draining.
So if I were to offer you one piece of advice moving forward it would be to reconnect with your passion. Do whatever it takes. Get out in the field and visit the work that your organization does. Read letters from people who have been helped. Invite people to come to speak at your meetings or events so that you can hear the stories being told. Ask your board members to share their personal stories of why they are involved at board and committee meetings. Invite program staff to share stories at your development and marketing team meetings. Or simply sit down with staff and volunteers by taking them out for afternoon tea and asking them what connects them to this work.
If you’re at all spiritual, get in touch with whatever it is in your tradition that inspires you. As fundraisers, it’s imperative that we get religion before we speak religion. If you’re faking it, people can tell. Okay, back to these amazing women…
The “Chopped” women lived and breathed their helping nature. I hope you do too.
The other thing these women did was inspire each other. They truly bonded with each other. I’ve seen many, many of these episodes. The chefs are always cut throat; they don’t help each other at all. Sometimes development staff at large nonprofits remind me of these non-cooperative chefs, always caring about who gets credit. Refusing to share names of donors. And so forth.
This was totally different. The lunch ladies each asked each other questions about where to find things in the kitchen. They borrowed ingredients from one another. They actively looked for ways to help each other. They rooted each other on. And they vowed that they would be best friends for life.
In the end, it didn’t matter who won. They were all winners in my book. And their kids were winners too. And kudos to the Food Network, who in the end awarded each of them a cash prize and also invited them to meet some big proponents of healthy food in the schools – the President and the First Lady. Yes, these cooks are going to the White House!
I love stories with happy endings.
When you’re passionate about what you do you’re in touch with your nonprofit’s story. Stories. You gather them. Repeatedly. You tell them. Repeatedly. You offer your donors the opportunity to join with you in giving these stories happy endings.
I wish you all could be invited to the White House to be thanked for being the heroes that you are. I can see you shining from here.
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