Passionaries: Turning Compassion Into Action
by Barbara R. Metzler
Templeton Foundation Press, 2006
272 pp., $19.95
Study the histories of nonprofits, and you’ll find that every organization, however large, began as the vision of its founder and that it usually took a creator years of effort and struggle before the organization was firmly established. Msgr. Edward Flanagan, for example, had to spend 20 years scrounging for supplies and money before Boys Town became a national institution. Robert Baden-Powell had to spend much of World War I fending off efforts to merge the Boy Scouts into the military.
Today’s generation of social entrepreneurs is as energetic and forceful in our day as Lord Baden-Powell and Msgr. Flanagan were in theirs. Yet we know surprisingly little about the creators of such large organizations as Habitat for Humanity or the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
In Passionaries, Barbara Metzler offers short profiles of 35 people who have either created or worked for nonprofits. “Passionary” is the word Metzler uses for social entrepreneurs (she has invented and trademarked the word). “While Passionaries is not a how-to book,” Metzler writes, “I trust that at least one profile will inspire you to find a cause you are passionate about.” Metzler’s book is very useful, but has severe flaws. Most of the people she profiles are important, underexposed visionaries whose work deserves more attention and analysis. Any journalist interested in voluntarism and looking for story ideas will find Passionaries a valuable tip sheet.
Another great strength of Passionaries is that Metzler sees that organizations now taken for granted have stories worth retelling. Take the Ronald McDonald House Charities, for example. We’ve all heard of these houses and have seen the donation boxes in McDonald’s. But it’s likely you don’t know that the inspiration for Ronald McDonald Houses came from, of all places, the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1971 an Eagles publicist and future general manager, Jim Murray, found that the three-year-old daughter of tight end Fred Hill had leukemia. Dr. Audrey Evans, head of pediatric oncology at Philadelphia’s Children Hospital, warned Hill that the facilities to care for her were inadequate. Eagles owner Leonard Tose vowed to do “whatever it takes” to upgrade the hospital and launched a million-dollar fundraising drive. (The Eagles have continued their charitable efforts and, over the past 40 years, have raised millions to fight leukemia.)
Dr. Evans then had another idea: Why shouldn’t there be a place where parents of seriously ill children could stay while their kids got better? Murray went to the local McDonald’s after hearing from a friend that they were planning to sell a green milkshake for St. Patrick’s Day. Because green and white are the Eagles’ colors, Murray asked McDonald’s if they would donate some of the profits from the shake to a house for parents of sick kids. McDonald’s said they would give all of the profits provided the organization be called Ronald McDonald House. The first Ronald McDonald House opened in 1974, and since then other houses have opened in more than 40 other cities.
The creation of Gifts in Kind International occurred almost as serendipitously. In 1983 United Way assistant to the president Susan Corrigan was offered $12 million in office supplies from 3M. She wondered if an organization could be created that could take things that businesses no longer wanted or needed and put them to good use. United Way decided this project was not part of their mission, and in 1984 Corrigan created Gifts in Kind International. In 2004 her organization received $650 million in corporate donations, making it the third-largest charity in the United States.
While Gifts in Kind International recycles unwanted goods from corporations, USA Harvest recycles food. The organization began in 1986, when Louisville stockbroker Stan Curtis saw that his favorite cafeteria was throwing out a half-full tub of green beans. Curtis wondered if there were homeless shelters or other poverty-fighting organizations that could use the perfectly good food that restaurants were throwing out. His organization, Kentucky Harvest, eventually became USA Harvest, which distributes 375 million pounds of food a year to the poor. That’s two million meals a day that USA Harvest gives away to poor people who might have little or nothing to eat.
What Metzler persuasively shows is that if you’re passionate about helping others, there are plenty of good deeds you can do. Hugh O’Brian, for example, is best known as the star of the 1950s TV Western Wyatt Earp. But in 1958, O’Brian went to the Congo to meet Dr. Albert Schweitzer, renowned for his efforts to provide poor Africans with decent medical care. As he was leaving, Dr. Schweitzer asked, “What are you going to do with this?” O’Brian decided his mission was to help teenagers decide what to do with their lives. He created HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership) which, over the past 50 years, has given 350,000 scholarships to 15-year-olds for workshops that help teens find their purpose in life.
Susan Corrigan, Stan Curtis, Jimmy Murray, and Hugh O’Brian ought to be better known than they are. But since the press typically does a poor job covering philanthropy and prefers bad news to good, we have far more stories about nonprofits in trouble than we have about groups that are quietly succeeding.
One major problem with Passionaries is that not everyone profiled is a social entrepreneur. For example, when writing about Mothers Against Drunk Driving, instead of writing about MADD’s founder, Candy Lightner, she chooses instead to write about Lightner’s successor, Millie Webb. Why doesn’t she write about Lightner? We don’t know.
Metzler also wants to say something about the American Red Cross, the YMCA, and the Salvation Army. To write about the Red Cross, she profiles Michael Spencer, who began volunteering for the Red Cross as a teenager and now serves as the organization’s National Director of Youth Volunteers for Disaster Relief. Her choice for YMCA’s most interesting person is Dominique Gayton, who ended his career as a teen gangster with the strong support of the Boston YMCA. She views the Salvation Army through the story of David Leonard, who kicked his cocaine habit because of the Army’s stern but loving guidance. But Metzler never tells her readers why Spencer, Gayton and Leonard are representative of their organizations, or why stories about these venerable organizations should be told in a book that’s primarily about social entrepreneurs.
In at least one case, Metzler profiles a nonprofit that no longer exists. In 1998 talk-show host Laura Schlessinger decided to help teenagers who were fleeing abusive homes or who were in foster care by giving them small bags full of items they could call their own. Within four years, My Stuff Bags was giving 100,000 “stuff bags” a year to troubled teens. But in 2003, for reasons Metzler does not explain, My Stuff Bags went out of business. But if My Stuff Bags was such a good idea, why did the organization only last four years? What caused it to fail, and are there lessons to be learned from its demise? Metzler does not answer these questions.
In a postscript, Metzler writes that she hopes Passionaries will be the first volume of a series. If there are future volumes, they should be limited to social entrepreneurs, and Metzler should be more candid about the struggles each entrepreneur has to face. And while Metzler’s book could be better, she is right to commemorate the people she portrays. Passionaries is a pioneering book, and well worth the effort.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster profiles Victorian and Edwardian social entrepreneurs in By Their Bootstraps.