Ice Cream for Breakfast: On Nonprofits and Happiness
I have helped nonprofits solicit support for more than 25 years. And, as everyone reading this knows, the business of marshaling support is, well, a business. Although I am always aware that the work that I do results in good things happening to real people, the day-to-day demands of the business—trains, planes, Ubers, meetings, hotels—can often obscure the greater good.
That was my mindset a couple of weeks ago when I boarded an evening flight from Orlando to Kissimmee, Fla., to speak to a nonprofit’s leadership team the next morning. What I saw there blew away that business mindset I had.
You see, my destination was Give Kids the World Village (GKWV), a nonprofit situated on a "79-acre, nonprofit resort in Central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families." Since 1986, more than 146,000 children and their families have come to the resort to visit Central Florida and its collection of theme parks and other attractions. But until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of it. Other wish-granting organizations send these families to GKWV, which is why neither you nor I had ever heard of GKWV.
The pristine property is run largely by volunteers. Their time is tracked closely. To date, more than a quarter of a million volunteers have logged more than 3 million hours.
Before my gig with the executive team, I spoke to several volunteers who were busy driving miniature trains, scooping ice cream, wrapping Christmas presents (Christmas is celebrated every Thursday night, Halloween every Tuesday) or any of the hundreds of other things that makes the resort special for the kids.
One guy I spoke to was responsible for the running, care and maintenance of a room-sized electric train set. He told me, "Every day when I leave here, I feel great."
I understood just how he felt; being there, I felt that way too. You see, in Kissimmee, Fla., there is a place where you can have ice cream for breakfast.
The resort features a life-size Candy Land game playground, a movie theater that looks like a real Spanish galleon and a myriad of other attractions—all of which corporate donors make possible. And in return for their largesse, corporations, like Hasbro, Boston Market and Hyatt, get to plaster their logos all over ... nothing. There is no sponsorship signage anywhere on the 79 acres. The absence of commercialism is striking in a "presented by" kind of world.
Obviously, something about GKWV makes corporate sponsors feel great, too. The resort’s president and CEO, Pamela Landwirth, was asked to speak about the nonprofit's relationship to a recent Hasbro shareholder’s meeting. It was the first time a nonprofit representative had ever spoken to the group. She received a standing ovation, and some attendees told her that it was the best thing they had ever heard at such an event.
How can we explain why involvement in GKWV produces so much happiness? And I guess (at least in this case) Mitt Romney was right after all, "corporations are people too." I asked Turnkey’s in-house psychological consultant, Otis Fulton, to weigh in.
"It should not be surprising that an opportunity to directly interact with and care for others results in feelings of happiness," he said. "Humans are wired to care for others, even when there is no material return on the investment. Because of the way our brains are wired, eating a delicious piece of cake is enjoyable whether we are hungry or not. Similarly, helping others feels good whether we expect something in return or not. Behavioral economists have a term for this sense of internal satisfaction—they call it the 'warm glow effect.'"
And I was seeing a warm glow in every volunteer with whom I spoke. What is truly magical, to borrow a phrase, about GKWV? I think that unlike many very worthwhile charities that people become involved with, GKWV is a place. Somewhere you can go; somewhere you can be.
You see, in Kissimmee, Fla., not only can you give a sick child ice cream for breakfast, you can take them to a castle, play life-sized Candy Land, house the entire family—and sometimes the accompanying medical team. There is a place where you can take a sick child swimming, even if that sick little kid is in a wheelchair. I know the place was designed to deliver the children happiness, to deliver on wishes. But, I wonder if we understand the whole of the happiness delivered there to children, to volunteers, to tourists, like me, and even to corporate citizens.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.