Jan taught me that we are all equally human, and therefore all equally flawed. Norm showed it's not enough to give, we should give gladly. These thoughts make our work more fun and also more likely to have impact. [more]
Our Foundation's Executive Director, Sue Dreitzler, asked me to give our board members an "early inspirations" presentation this month. What caused Alice and me to get into The Business of Good and what were our early experiences? Looking back can be a healthy exercise so I'll share what I've learned here.
I think my earliest inspiration for loving and for giving was my little sister, Jane. About four years after her death, she still motivates me to serve others.
Jane would have been 55-years-old today (March 6) so it's an appropriate day to remember how she inspired me.
Jane had Down's syndrome. She was born two years after me and while I surely didn't think a lot about what Janie was teaching me when I was younger, it is certainly very clear to me now.
Most of all, she taught me that every human life is valuable.
This supposedly "useless" girl (I hear we're now able to abort the Janes if we know they're coming) gave me, along with every one of my other eight brothers and sisters, perspectives that we would have never had without Jane in our lives. These perspectives included empathy, the suspension of judgment. She also encouraged us to take ourselves less seriously.
Unlike us, Jane never seemed to worry about what time it was or what other people thought of her. And she never judged any one of us, except when we weren't doing what she commanded. (She was, after all, unabashedly Irish.)
She loved each of us for who we were, no more no less.
I really, really, really try to keep that in mind when I meet the very poor and the marginalized people we serve. Like Jane, they are every bit as human as I am and they deserve every dignity I wish for myself.
During the same growing years my inspirations were my Mom and Dad. Never ones to make any noise about such things, they were the epitome of "servant leaders." My Dad served every one of his patients (he was an M.D.) as if they were his only one while my Mom's kitchen was always occupied by someone who needed an accepting presence.
The early years of our foundation: I guess Alice and I have always done something of service and really enjoyed it. We were busy raising kids and building a business, but Alice did things like starting an annual festival and serving on parish council and I played guitar and sang most Sundays.
In 1997 when our youngest was 13-years-old, I told our new parish priest we were ready to serve beyond the music and fundraising ministries. His name was Norm Smith, and boy did he have some plans for me.
I became his right hand as he was building a partnership with an inner-city church. I remember going there for the first time wearing old clothes and driving a friend's junk car in hopes that I wouldn't be shot. I'm serious. It's amazing to me now to realize my perceptions as a card-carrying yuppie.
For two years, we built some real grassroots efforts. We raised funds the hard way to fix up an abandoned convent into three apartments for transitional housing for refugees. We bought a van to bring more people to Sunday services and to transport food from the food bank to our church to serve hot meals twice a week. We helped a wonderful woman boot strap a health services ministry.
By 2000, our business finally started making a profit (after 12 years of losses) and Alice and I began donating 25 percent of it annually to the foundation we began with Norm and our company's CFO, Jack Zaback.
It was the four of us who set the original mission, which still applies, that we will not start new charities; we will instead provide support for those with missions of self-esteem who also could use our business know-how.
The learning was painful. There's nothing quite as dangerous as a do-gooder with money.
Getting behind too many charities was amongst our early errors. Just writing checks and believing that would solve problems was another. There was even a case in which we blindly sent money to (what turned out to be) a domestic abuser.
Another big lesson learned was that most non-profits need problem-solving counsel and support far more than they need money alone. It's embarrassing to say it this way looking back, but in our early years we were "buying fishing poles" instead of helping people "learn to fish." Essentially, we were just helping people get to their next crisis.
In 2001, a man who'd helped us develop the refugee center, Joe Cistone, became CEO of a charity called International Partners in Mission (IPM). Positioned as "quid pro quo," Joe asked if the foundation would "test its purpose" by becoming IPM's business counsel.
With Joe and IPM, we were able to "test" for more productive methods of support (and still give money, too). In the early days of this partnership, we did such mundane things as rebuild his accounting procedures, for a year loaning our bookkeeper for a half day a week. Slowly, we grew together to develop a non-traditional revenue stream for their work. Later, we helped them build an overall business strategy before assisting with the implementation of an organizational structure.
It's been a gas and we still are learning every day but IPM helped us create the model for what we want to grow up to be - a partner for learning and searching to grow great charities.
And all the while, keep our sense of humor.
One night, early in our work with Father Norm, I picked him up at the rectory for a meeting with our inner-city partners, who happened at the time to be particularly angry about something we were doing.
When he answered the door, he was in a clown suit - the whole deal; red nose, shoes and all. I said, "Father, what the heck are you doing?" He said, "Hey, it could get rough down there, we gotta keep this light if we can."
Norm passed around the same time as Janie and there isn't a day I don't think about all I learned from them.
Jan taught me that we are all equally human, and therefore all equally flawed. Norm showed it's not enough to give, we should give gladly.
These thoughts make our work more fun and also more likely to have impact.