I’ve really got to hand it to my colleague and our Director of Customer Success, Ayneka Benjamin, for posing an interesting challenge that woke me up out of lull, a stagnation I’ve been feeling. It’s probably a feeling many of us can say we’ve experienced. That feeling of just going through the motions, wading through task after task whether it be at work or at home, day after day going by, not meaninglessly but also not with a particular sense of meaning either. I’m very grateful for the jolt Ayneka unknowingly inspired in me that’s waking me up from this feeling.
Okay, so what’s this challenge, you ask?
Ayneka sent me a short clip from a Simon Sinek Ted Talk (If you’re not familiar, I recommend having a watch and following Simon; he’s brilliant.) and requested that I answer two questions: 1) What is your “why”? and 2) Why should our company be in a position to serve clients?
At first, this seemed like a pretty inconsequential challenge, maybe a way to inject some enthusiasm into the final quarter of what had otherwise become a somewhat trying year. But as I put this on my “to-do” list, a spark of conviction was lit within me and I decided that I was going to take this challenge very seriously — so seriously in fact, that I wrote my answers out by hand, typed and revised it twice now.
As I sat in the solitude of one of our smaller side-offices, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given much thought to my own personal “why” for quite some time. What did that even mean, your “why”? I guess I’d really need to think about myself, what my own little mission in this life is. Not a daunting exercise at all…
But wouldn’t you know it, once the pen hit the paper, it all started to come to me very naturally. Before I knew it, I had several pages written and a much clearer idea of myself, what’s important to me and why I believe so much in what I spend a lot of my time doing.
You see, I was never one of those people who knew early on what they wanted to do with their life. I was always envious of those people. Being asked the proverbial “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as a child was anxiety inducing. I remember answering once that I wanted to be a veterinarian, which wasn’t true at all, but I knew that I loved animals so it seemed like a legitimate enough response. And while my parents pretty much fell into the aforementioned group of people, (my father following his calling as a teacher in the public school system and my mother being inspired by her nana to become a nurse, which she did for many years caring for infants in neonatal intensive care units), they both set an example for me that they weren’t just working. They were giving their talent to others — they were serving others and making a big difference. So, what talent did I have that I could give? For much of my early life, the answer to this seemed to be artistic talent. (If you’re on this site, you can take a look around and hopefully see my rationale for the previous statement.)
I went to art school, but something in me knew I wasn’t going to be a professional artist either, so I enrolled and graduated from a program for Curatorial Studies. Eighteen year old Jen’s thinking at the time was: “I’ll take my knowledge of art and skills acquired as a lower level manager in retail (thanks, high school and college jobs) and leverage it into a steady and stable career working in galleries or museums.” That became my “why”: Because these were two things I can do well, so I should use them to earn a living.
Funny how life takes you down a much different path than the one you thought you had clearly mapped out, though. I never ended up working for a gallery or museum outside of the intern work I did and the glorified “security guard” position I held at a museum in DC after graduating. At that time of my life, I was incredibly disappointed that nothing seemed to work out the way I thought I wanted it to. I couldn’t understand why I saw others around me land the jobs they wanted while here I was, a graduate of a program specifically designed to prepare me for gallery and museum employment, struggling to break into a field I was beginning to feel didn’t want me at all.
But now that time has passed and I’ve gained perspective, I see that I needed more lessons to guide me toward my “why.”
I spent my initial years out of college working in a Primary Care Physician’s office, first in the front office and then as an insurance and referrals coordinator. If there was anything that period of my career taught me, it was that I could learn to do almost anything and that I was a very effective, friendly problem solver. I learned a lot about what people went through as they battled everything from acute sickness to serious illnesses like cancer. I saw how it affected patients and their families, heard their stories and played my role in advocating for them when their insurance company required authorizations and documentation for case review. These years taught me how to tell stories, how to listen to people who in some cases had exhausted anyone who would to listen to them, and importantly, how it felt to do something good for a person in need of help.
I won’t bore you with too much more history, but I am now certain that the job I took after that, as a traffic/account coordinator and then account manager for a graphic design firm, was what opened the door to landing my current job. Without my experience at the design firm, I never would have had gained the technical qualifications and experience needed for employment with MarketSmart. I am incredibly grateful for the two years I spent at that firm.
Why have I been telling you all of this? Well, partially because you may find this example helpful if you decide to reflect on your own personal “why,” and partially because I want to share my own story. I want people to know me, and what better way than to become a little vulnerable and share some of myself with you.
So, after learning a bit about my history (and for me, reflecting on the roots of where my “why” may have come from), here it is: A large part of my “why” is the act of making connections — connections between people, between ideas, between occurrences, between experiences just like I have presented to you in this post the connections between experiences in my past and my present. In my college courses about curating, I was taught to find, critically think about and display connections to tell a story or educate an audience. In my experience as an artist, I have witnessed the connection a person can feel with a piece — a song, a play, an exhibit, a performance filled with the human spirit. I’ve always wanted and liked to connect, especially with the human spirit, which is such a beautiful thing.
And that “why” is highlighted by two other concepts that guide my conduct in this life: The Golden Rule and Love. It’s important to me that all of us are loved, feel loved and give love by treating others the way we would hope they would treat ourselves. It’s also my firm belief that we are here to help one another and the result of helping is that it can bring happiness. And I also believe that helping is an act of love. As part of my faith, it is very important to me to be loving and the best way I know how to do that is to be helpful. If you ever get the response from me that it’s been my pleasure to do something that helped you, I really mean it.
What a cathartic experience to really think about what the driving forces are for how I conduct myself! But, that was only the first part of the challenge. I still had another question to answer, and truthfully, one that didn’t seem to have a clear relation to the first.
So, I again took pen to paper and wrote out a few thoughts which, you guessed it, I’ll share here with you.
For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, I work for a company called MarketSmart, and though there are many facets to what we do, in a nutshell we help fundraisers for nonprofits connect with passionate individuals who want to make a difference for a cause they care about in a major way.
As the company’s name suggests, we’re a marketing firm, but I hesitate to use that term because while it’s true, it almost doesn’t do justice to what we really do. We don’t just market, we help make connections. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Without getting into our history and why our CEO founded the company, which — talk about making yourself vulnerable so others can understand your “why” — you can read here, the long and short of it is that we exist to connect people who want to help, who want to exercise the passion and desire they have to make a difference for others that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do without the help of the individuals working hard on their behalf at these nonprofits.
In the 4 years I’ve been in my role at MarketSmart, I’ve been so fortunate to see real reasons we need, not should, need to be here to serve clients. We help facilitate connections faster than anything out there has been able to do, and just as no man is an island, these connections are absolutely essential to helping others in need. (Lots of the same words appearing here that were in my own personal “why”, no?)
Sure, each of my colleagues and I have a specific role we play within the company, but when it comes down to it as a collective unit, we come to work every day to help make the connections between people that will make this world better.
We do it for the little sister of a sponsored child abroad who can’t afford a lifesaving surgery she needs, but that her brother’s sponsor can and wants to fund, and wants to make sure more children like them can lead healthy lives.
We do it for the student whose life will be enriched by a meaningful college education, an investment in this person who will go on to affect their community, their nation, perhaps the world, that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible without the scholarship a fundraiser helped a generous alum establish.
We do it for the patient whose mission in life is now just to survive the cancer they’re battling, and because of the research a donor funded, they have hope that they indeed can and will overcome it. Because of the research that saved the life of a person like them, they have a support group and a champion for advancing research that will find a cure.
We do it for the person who has fallen on hard times, lost their job, lost their home, lost their sense of purpose and desperately needs help, but has found their way to an organization that has the means to help build them back up, the means to provide the love and compassion that will change the course of their life.
We do it for the 5-day old kittens abandoned and found in a bag by the side of the highway who, because of generous donors, can receive the tender care they need to survive and grow in the absence of their mother — and who will soon make a few families very happy to have them in their life.
We do it for the animals and organisms in a delicate ecosystem that can not and should not be disrupted by the carelessness of others who may not even realize the devastation they cause when they discard their trash on the beach.
We do it for the person who daily feels the pain and loneliness of being rejected by their family, peers and others close to them, but now is able to find a welcoming community that adores them for being their authentic self — all because a few loving donors helped fund programs they wished they could have had to help them navigate the same pain others are feeling.
We do it for the person who has just found meaning in their own life through religion and yearns to learn more about their newfound calling, and can because others who found meaning in their life established funds to create programs that are far-reaching in their ministry.
We do it for the service member who saw combat on behalf of our country and now has a hard time finding employment back home, but can take comfort knowing they have the support of an organization who will help them, all because a generous veteran remembered how hard it was for them and wanted to make sure they could help others in the same predicament.
We do it for the woman whose home was just destroyed in a hurricane and without the help of fundraisers who coordinated giving with compassionate donors, would have no place to go and no way to rebuild.
But first and foremost, we do it for the Fundraiser who wants to heal the world, who wants to feel good knowing that they’re satisfying their own “why” by making connections, solving problems, with other individuals who want the same thing — We do it for the Fundraiser who finds pure joy and meaning in working with donors to make a difference in this world.
I realize now that this request for reflection was something I needed. It’s reaffirmed just why I spend as much time as I do making progress with my colleagues and with our clients, and God if it doesn’t make me feel good to realize that I have been put in a position to do something I’m good at that can have real effects in this world. I so hope that you feel the same about the role that you’re in, no matter what it is.
If you’ve put the work in and made it this far reading my dissertation, which I’ll admit has been very self-serving, then maybe you’ll be interested in stretching your muscles just a little bit further so that it can serve you well, too:
I challenge you to take some time to really think through the answers to these two questions: 1) What is your “why”? 2) Why should your [company, organization, nonprofit, business, etc.] exist to do what it does? And if you want, share it. I’d love to hear about other people’s motivations for what they do, and I bet others would love to hear it from you, too.
It may be more revealing and reinvigorating than you expect.