Classy Awards Showcase a Different Kind of Achievement

Perhaps someday the creativity and passion that we celebrate in our culture will extend beyond the movie stars, recording artists and athletes who entertain us.
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The Fifth Annual Classy Awards were held on Saturday evening May 3 in San Diego, California. While other events that took place that same day -- most notably the Kentucky Derby and the White House Correspondents Dinner -- received far more attention and coverage, the Classy Awards provided an extraordinary opportunity for those fortunate enough to attend to be engaged and inspired. The event showcased the work of impressive organizations and accomplished individuals who are addressing the most complex and difficult challenges that confront our world.

The award ceremony was the final event in a series of gatherings over three days that brought together founders, thought leaders and philanthropists, all of whom choose to devote their time, their energy, and sometimes their lives to tackle the toughest issues facing us today. The weekend also included the "Classy Collaborative," a two-day conference that invited these top social innovators to discuss efforts designed to drive social progress. It was awe inspiring to listen to some of the best and the brightest share ideas, progress and challenges across a range of categories including Environmental Protection, Animal and Wildlife Welfare, Human Rights and Social Justice, Poverty and Hunger Relief, Educational Advancement, Health Services, Disaster Relief and Public Safety and Active Duty and Veteran Services.

Most of us who build nonprofit organizations do so because we think we have a solution to a situation, a condition, or a crisis. Typically, we are motivated by the pain and suffering, the devastation, or the injustice we see. We are often moved to action because of a personal connection to the story we are drawn to -- though not always. We sometimes walk away from successful careers and hefty salaries. We typically don't think too much about 401K plans or plush offices. We are sometimes visionary, usually driven and often stubborn. Some of us are selfless; most are passionate and determined. We become leaders-sometimes unintentionally. Some of us are creative, idealistic, and innovative; some are bigger than life. We are flawed and typically not nearly as strong or fearless as others assume us to be.

Regardless of how we arrive at this place, most who work in the nonprofit space do so with little fanfare and few perks. Nonprofits operate on thin margins, always chasing the next dollar to fund the next project and fill the next gap. We rarely have the resources we need to do the job the way we believe it should be done, and we are constantly justifying how and why the work we do matters. We make the most out of what we have and the best of challenging circumstances. We rely on the kindness and generosity of others in order to do the work that we believe in. We frequently forget to take care of ourselves.

Indeed, work in the nonprofit space can be risky and sometimes dangerous. Some who devote themselves to alleviating suffering are themselves significantly affected by the trauma they encounter or the devastation they witness. Compassion fatigue is a common experience, and secondary trauma -- an occupational hazard for many who work in this field -- can disable even the most idealistic among us. In addition, working conditions are sometimes unsafe and accommodations can be meager. Those who devote themselves to caring for others and our planet are a determined lot, but determination alone cannot protect us from the psychological consequences or the physical threat sometimes associated with the work we do.

And yet, those of us who are drawn to this work, those who prefer to fight the good fight, those who are willing to accept challenges that often seem insurmountable, will tell you that there is nothing we would rather do. We will tell you that we feel honored and humbled by the opportunity to improve communities and save lives. We will tell you that the people we meet along the way are the finest we have ever encountered. We will tell you that we rarely worry about finding meaning in life. The individuals who choose careers in the nonprofit sector aren't saints. They're just ordinary people who are doing their best to make a difference in an imperfect world.

I am proud to be a member of this tribe and honored to serve along side of some of the most talented and compassionate people on the planet. I am also grateful to the inspired team at Classy who decided to elevate this sector by building an award show around it. This is a great gift -- one that is drawing attention to the critical work being done in faraway lands as well as in our own backyard. And it is fitting that the Classy Awards were held the same week that TIME recognized the 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2014 at their star-studded gala in New York City. Several from this annual list come from the nonprofit sector, and they too walk the red carpet, dress in their finest, and are honored for their accomplishments along with world leaders, CEOs, and artists.

Perhaps someday the creativity and passion that we celebrate in our culture will extend beyond the movie stars, recording artists and athletes who entertain us. Perhaps someday solving the world's problems, ending suffering, and improving lives will be considered "awesome" endeavors and highly valued pursuits. Perhaps more organizations will be fully staffed and adequately resourced. And perhaps the most significant challenges to our collective health and well-being will be effectively addressed. I'm not sure that one very classy awards show can lead to this kind of cultural shift, but it certainly can't hurt.

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