I was talking about Winds of Peace Foundation with a contractor who had come to our house; he had asked me what kind of work I do. When I described to him the work of grantmaking and microlending in Nicaragua among the very poor, he responded enthusiastically with, “Wow, what great work that must be! I’d love to be doing something like that.” I explained that the work was really the legacy of Harold and Louise Nielsen and that I was merely privileged to be administering the process. Nonetheless, I agreed that the work has been not only interesting but very fulfilling.
The man’s reaction to the work of Winds of Peace was not at all unusual. Wherever I have had the opportunity to represent the Foundation, people have been very vocal about the way they perceive the work, frequently offering both congratulatory words of encouragement as well as wistful wishes about someday doing “some kind of work like that.” Indeed, the way people used to respond to learning that I was a CEO of a company was far different than their reaction upon learning that I work for a private foundation serving the rural population of a very poor country.
We seem to have an innate awareness that work which serves others is somehow a higher calling, something we should aspire to, more deserving of our appreciation, embodying perhaps a selflessness. I can make the generalization because I have experienced the shift in perspective of others as I made the transition from corporation to non-profit. I also admit that I have some of the same feelings myself: foundation work in Nicaragua has greater meaning to me than my corporate responsibilities ever did, despite the fact that I valued those days of corporate organizational development.
We just know, don’t we? For most of us, there is the recognition that we’d love to be making a positive difference in the lives of others. It’s why we have reverence for firefighters and nurses and teachers. It’s the same emotion that grabs us when we hear a news report about some bystander performing an heroic deed to save the life of another. We love to imagine ourselves accomplishing something so life-changing. We hope that we’d be capable of mustering the unselfishness to act in such a way. The notion taps into our need for a bit of nobility in our lives, to see ourselves as being significant enough to be making even a tiny difference in a very big world.
We know that the need is deep inside of us. We long for its manifestation. It resides in us as a psychological desire for meaning in our lives. It also resides in us as a physical desire to affirm our connections with others: it coaxes the tangible sense of joy that often washes over us when we perform an act of charity or help for another. In other words, the need is as much a part of our makeup as head or heart.
That need, that higher calling, is an inextricable extension of our humanity, and it’s also as accessible as the next person we encounter. Important work isn’t defined as an occupation or limited to dramatic circumstances. It doesn’t require a change of vocation or geography. It’s available in the way that we live. It’s in our interactions with every other soul in our daily lives. “Great work” isn’t limited to the rural poor in Nicaragua or the rescue of a small child from a burning building. Great work is to be found in every niche of our existence, if we will just look for it and see it for what it is. Of course, that’s the tough part, sometimes even more demanding than entering a burning building.
We know what works need to be done. In lifetimes limited by time and circumstance, we are simply required to gather the courage and heart to contribute that which we can….