Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Heart Rending Truth About Association Management

Sloe gin, sloe gin
Tryin' the wash away the pain inside
Well I'm sick and I'm all done in
I'm standing in the rain
And I feel like I'm gonna die..
I'm so damn lonely, ain't even high....
I'm so damn lonely, think I'm gonna die....Joe Bonamassa, Sloe Gin (2007)

The thing that nobody tells you about this profession is sometimes it breaks your heart.

This past weekend I was with one of my favorite organizations at their annual retreat (name withheld for privacy). This particular group has done some amazing work over the past few years and I've been privileged to be a part of it. Part of their focus is on the prevention of hospital acquired infections that can lead to serious illness, injury or death. They are focused and serious, but they are also a lot of fun and their enthusiasm is so refreshing.

However, on the second day of this relatively normal strategic planning retreat, one of the board members received the devastating news that her brother is days away from dying in the hospital.  That would be bad enough. But the horrific irony is he is dying from the exact type of infection this group is trying to prevent.  The shock as the words spilled out made a palpable, physical impact on each person in the room. There was a rapid intake of breath, followed by a jumbled flow of words and tears that expressed genuine commiseration, consolation and attempted comfort.

I could see each individual frantically attempting to place this horror their colleague was going through in some sort of context.  Each board member trying to make sense of it and regain their bearings. Some lost in their own thoughts.  Recalling patients, relatives, parents, children and sometimes even their own personal struggles. Gathering rememberance. What became insanely, incredibly laid out in stark relief over the apocryphal stories, crafted mission statements and plans to create real change was the fact that death from illness is one thing, death from a preventable illness - one the group is actively working to stamp out - seems particularly cruel.

And galvanizing.

Because when the group rallied, they rallied around the idea that they aren't fighting to prevent "1 in ____ patients" from becoming ill or dying.  They are fighting for the "1." The one child, the one parent, the one sibling, the one partner, the one friend that matters above all others to someone. Real life. Real death. Real moments.

Nonprofit work, and the attendent struggles we go through, don't routinely result in such dramatic circumstances but the inescapable fact is we are immersed in a particularly human-centric profession.  This is not the first time I have confronted death with a client either as an individual or even in the context of a meeting or an event.  It is however the first time I have seen death, in real time, so clearly and directly linked to the mission of the organization I'm working with.

Yes, the work is hard.  Yes, meetings can be long and hard.  Strategy can be difficult.  Defining policy and working with volunteers is challenging. Personalities can drive both healing and conflict. But at the end of the day, I would rather work in a field that can suddenly break my heart into a thousand pieces on a random Sunday afternoon than to pass up the privilege to be a part of our profession's efforts to impact people personally, professionally and in all other ways.

And not just people.  But the one.  The one person, whoever it may be who matters the most to the one person we may never have even met.

I'm raising a sloe gin towards the south and sending my love along with it.....


  1. What a beautiful article! It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day and wordsmithing and benchmarking. Thank you for the reminder that it is ultimately all about people.

  2. Thank you for your comment Heather....I appreciate the feedback....:D have a great week!

  3. Shelly, your experience is confirmed by the research on compassion fatigue, which is talked about in the field of business storytelling. The focus needs to be on "one." As soon as that number doubles to two, psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon has found, compassion fatigue sets in ( 17/newd/36838772_1_insiko-hawaiian-society-pamela-burns).
    Without a focus on "one," people lose their focus and the ability to connect, which dilutes empathy and impact. Although our brain may comprehend large numbers, we instinctively have great difficulty feeling this magnitude because our brain can’t tell the difference between one child dying of hunger and ten thousand of them experiencing the same thing.

  4. Great information Lori - thank you so much for sharing....


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