One of my secret pleasures is watching the show “Chopped” 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 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 haven’t 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.
And why YOU, toiling in the vineyards of the social benefit sector, are just the person to do it!
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 any episode of “Chopped,” you know 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 their work, both big picture and every detail.
They were committed to making sure their kids not only had healthy food, but they also learned about nutrition 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. Or in any situation that would put their healthy development at risk.
Here are some of the creative strategies they invented:
One played a game with the kids during lunch hour, where they learned things 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 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.
Never discount the transformative power of personal passion.
Each of the lunch ladies participating in this competition was passionate about their job.
They’d chosen lives of public service, and didn’t just talk a good game. They walked it. They weren’t wealthy, so winning the $10,000 prize would be a big deal.
Each had a personal story to share.
One of the ladies worked three jobs, and her husband did as well. Another had already pledged to buy computers for her school. All of them wanted their kids to know 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 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 on the panel.
One chef said “the Lord has shined on me and I need to shine back.”
Passion like that is contagious.
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 throughout many parts of the world. 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.
It’s not just the cause that pulls on people’s heartstrings.
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.
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 people — staff, board and volunteers — 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.
Were I 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 your organization does.
Read letters from people who have been helped.
Invite people to come speak at your meetings or events so you can hear the stories being told firsthand.
Ask your board members to share their personal stories of why they are involved, both at board and committee meetings.
Invite program staff to share stories at your development and marketing team meetings. And vice-versa. You’re all in this mission work together.
Sit down with staff and volunteers by inviting them for afternoon tea (virtual works too!) 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 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.
One incredible thing these women did was inspire each other.
They truly bonded and had each other’s backs. 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 they would be best friends for life.
This was, very much, a culture of philanthropy — “love of humanity” — in action.
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 got to go to the White House!
Don’t you just love stories with happy endings?
Your donors do too!
In fact, donors love nothing more than to be transported by you into a story where they can help make the happy ending a reality.
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.
It’s your job to offer 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 you are. I can see you shining from here.
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Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net
Article first posted on Clairification January 2015