I was standing in the dining room one evening when my cousin called.
Bad news. His mother, my Aunt Ginny, was dead. It was completely unexpected.
Nothing either of us could say would matter or even make sense, so he gave me the details. Aunt Ginny was in her 70s — healthy, active, and busy. The way you want to be at that age. Then she had a bad reaction to some medication. When it happens to someone you don’t know, you say, “It was just one of those things.” When it’s someone close, you can’t say anything.
I listened almost hungrily, as we do at times like that. Anxious to know more, yet not wanting to hear it.
It was one of those this-can’t-be-happening moments that happen more and more often as we get older.
I leaned against the table, felt the cool wood under my hand, the solidity of the floor under my feet. Around me were the four walls and the furniture I live with every day — so large and real compared to the small, staticky voice of my cousin coming through the phone.
Suddenly life came into sharp focus, as if something had fallen away from my eyes. I could see with terrible clarity how these solid things around me were like breeze-tossed mist compared to the greater reality of the people in my life: the family, friends and companions who have shaped me. The friendly guy across the street whose name I can’t remember. The lady who makes my tall soy mocha every morning and says, “Happy Monday,” even on Tuesday.
And Aunt Ginny. She and my mother were close, so she knew me from the day I was born, and the two families spent a lot of time together, grew up together. She helped me see that whatever you do, you can, you must do it with joy and passion. Memory everlasting.
These people are the real floor we stand on, the walls that shelter us, the furniture where we rest.
Yet they can be suddenly and irretrievably gone.
And when they go, it’s as if a section of the floor has fallen away, leaving a void where we used to stand. We reroute our lives around the hole, and we gradually get used to it. Until death or some other change silently blasts another gap.
I had to let my cousin go. He had a few more calls to make. I stood there and stared into the new void — not the first I’ve faced. And it won’t be my last.
We live in two overlapping worlds. One of them — the world of physical things — feels more real. It gets most of our attention, most of the time. Buildings, cars, tools, the ground under our feet.
There’s another world inhabiting the same space — the world of people and connections and memory and love. It has more weight on our lives, more influence on who we are and what we are becoming.
The people around us give us nearly all our meaning, understanding, and joy. When they’re with us. And even after they’re gone.
Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “There is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome … than some good memory … If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in his heart, even that may sometime be the means of his salvation.”
In other words, Your stuff may be cool, but it’s not going to save you.
Why am I telling you this?
Because fundraising is one of the places where the two worlds merge into one. Every one of us involved in fundraising straddles those two worlds.
Our work seems to consist of paper, ink, postal regulations, websites, spreadsheets, meetings …
But more than that, fundraising is also built from a network of human contact, of people surviving and becoming, of vexing problems, and of life-or-death struggles. It’s real life playing out in the deepest sense.
The work we do as fundraisers starts with the lives we touch through the causes we support. But maybe more immediately, it’s a web that connects to the donors we call on to make a difference with us. Donors who, like us, are walking between the increasing number of floorless sections of their lives. Sometimes wondering how they can go on, but more often with hearts overflowing with love, yearning to make things right, hoping they can make the world — both worlds — a little better.
Like all of us, our donors are sleepwalking through the visible solid world, but now and then waking into the real one. Making a charitable gift is one of those awake moments that reminds you where you are — and assures you that you can go on.
That’s why working in fundraising is such a privilege and a responsibility. Every day we participate in the transformation and enlightenment of donors. We’re like midwives at their repeated rebirths. If we could see it for what it is, we’d be overcome by the wonder.
But most of the time we can’t see the reality, so we act like all we’re doing is just a form of marketing, not meaningfully different from persuading strangers to choose one brand of shampoo over another.
What’s the practical application of this for you and me? Nothing.
And yet everything.
Whether you’re aware of the two-world quality of your work or not — even if you believe there’s only one world — you still have to work hard, pay attention, sweat the details, and keep up with changing demographics and technology.
And when you’re fully awake to the numinous quality of the work, fundraising is still a pain in the butt. You don’t have the staff and resources you need. Things go stupidly wrong. Your boss, your board, your client, your consultants don’t get it or get in the way. Great ideas somehow don’t pan out. Those things happen.
And that’s okay. Because even when it’s rough, it’s real. You still help donors stay on their feet, and you still make the world a better place. How many professions do that?
So do your work with passion and commitment and even reverence — because you are on holy ground, even when it doesn’t seem that way. Especially when it doesn’t seem that way.
And never forget that your work can’t be measured only in cost and revenue. Every day it measures out love, memory, comfort, and the strength to go on.
Learn more about the ways we participate in the miracle of fundraising by taking the best-selling Moceanic online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.