A Time of Significance

By Bill Bolling, Executive Director
Appeared in Foodsharing
February—May, 2012

Each year, a magazine of Georgia business, government, politics, and economic development, Georgia Trend, recognizes the 100 most influential people in Georgia. Out of those 100 influential leaders they choose one person as Georgian of the Year.

This year I was chosen. I was incredibly honored, as were all of us who work and volunteer at the Food Bank. There has been a great outpouring of affirmation and support from across the community. I think a lot of people feel a sense of connection, as they should. My success has clearly been built upon the tremendous support and involvement of people and organizations from every part of the community.

I think the significance of this recognition is not so much that I was chosen, but that someone from the nonprofit sector was chosen. In a time of great challenges in our community, I think Georgia Trend is saying that nonprofit leaders will be an important and essential part of how we rebuild our community. It is an acknowledgement that government and business alone cannot rebuild the trust and spirit of cooperation that will be needed to collectively move forward.

William James, a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher said, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” I think that can also be true for a community or even a society.

Our attitude in how we approach our work plays an enormous role in the nonprofit sector. It’s based on our belief that with hard work and sustained effort, things will work out; that people are generally good, and given the right circumstances, will do the right thing. If a community believes in itself instead of blaming others for negative situations, fearing that others are getting something undeserved, or waiting for others to solve its problems, then I think it can accomplish anything that it commits itself to.

We can move from entitlement to shared responsibility; from a false prosperity to shared sacrifice and shared rewards; from fear to knowledge; from blame to respect; from despair to hopefulness.

In a time of uncertainty, I think we desperately need something to believe in again, something that we can devote our lives in our being. I think that ideal can rise up from the community and connect our deeper purpose with what collectively needs to be done.

As anyone who has ever volunteered at a community kitchen, food pantry, or social service organization has found, there is something quite remarkable about those who request a helping hand. Facing uncertainty and hardship, most people who come for help do not complain, blame others, or otherwise express their negativity. It’s just the opposite. They are often thankful even for small gestures of love and caring. Over the years, I have experienced a remarkable attitude of hope and graciousness.

In the nonprofit sector there are similar attitudes and accompanying values that permeate the culture of how services are delivered. I would characterize those attitudes and values as collaborative, inclusive, trusting, patient, and kind.

We clearly live in a time that promotes and celebrates win-lose and de-emphasizes collaboration and cooperation. Especially during an election year, the tendency toward “gotcha” journalism makes us all more cynical and less trustful. Being successful in the nonprofit world requires that we find ways for everyone to win, which hinges on creating a way for everyone to do their part.

By their very nature nonprofit organizations must be inclusive if they want to succeed. The old saying, “it takes a village” is true. It takes the investment of individuals, foundations, businesses, the faith community, the educational community, and the public sector to be successful in almost any endeavor. Those of us who work in service to others are sometimes characterized as naïve and too trusting. The truth is we create a trusting environment by giving people a chance to be trustworthy. Of course, we sometimes get disappointed, but when we have high expectations, people often rise to, and even surpass those expectations.

Another important characteristic of a successful nonprofit is patience. Without patience we can often get discouraged and even cynical. It calls on us to delay gratification, to work for the long haul, to invest in children if you want healthy adults, and to invest in education if you want those children to one day be the leaders we need them to be.

Without kindness, consideration, respect for others, and a belief that most people and organizations are doing the best they can, we have little hope of finding common ground.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is change our attitude.

I would suggest that the underlying philosophy of facing uncertainty with a positive attitude is one of the hallmarks of a healthy community.

I once heard a Native American story in which an elder – a grandmother – was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied, “It’s because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.”

I have been blessed to have a loving family, a supportive community, and a lifelong calling to serve others. These all encourage and motivate me to feed the wolf of love.

We all have a choice. It does not depend on our educational achievements, our station in life, our job, or the things we have. It is as simple as finding common ground in service to others – a foundation that we all can build upon.

We live in a time of significance, and the choices we need to make have never been more critical or clear. Let us choose life, love, and goodness. We cannot wait on others to act. The future is ours to create.

Bill Bolling