Over the summer of 2006, as development director for the public-library foundation in Bozeman, Mont., I put the finishing touches on a $7-million capital campaign for a state-of-the-art public library. When the new library opened in the fall, it would be the first public green building in Montana.
The capital campaign had weathered the dot-com bust, survived opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, and met rising construction costs by increasing the goal twice.
With my 57th birthday in the rearview mirror, several friends asked me if I planned to retire when the campaign concluded. Were they giving me a "you've earned it" compliment, or letting me know I looked as exhausted as I felt?
I had taken the development director's job because the library was a civic project, not because I was a professional fund raiser. My career, first practicing law and then running a nonprofit organization, was rooted in activism. I was never comfortable being called a fund raiser because most people equate that word with arm twisting.
For me, raising money is a combination of advocacy and community building, both of which fit my broader interests in civic engagement. I enjoyed coaching tentative donors into influential community leaders and coaxing government officials into effective partners.
Nevertheless, I worried that fund raising was taking me on an unintended professional detour. To keep my career options open, I continued to do consulting and writing on national service, voter education, and the legal system. In addition, I maintained a Web site I had created 10 years earlier called CivicMind.com.
With the library campaign coming to a close, and the cue from friends to retire, the time was right to leave fund raising but remain in the nonprofit world. Serendipitously, the National Conference on Volunteering and Service was scheduled in nearby Seattle, so I decided to go. The energy of 2,000 people rallying for social change was exhilarating.
On the eve of the conference, Bill Gates announced he would step down from Microsoft to work full time on global health and education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The civil-rights icon Andrew Young gave a stirring keynote address, and the television anchor Robin Roberts told the inspiring story of rebuilding her hometown in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Seattle's coffee lived up to its reputation, and I had the heartburn to prove it.
Unfortunately, my chest pain did not go away. Within several weeks, I had open-heart surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from my pulmonary artery. After an eight-week recuperation period, my husband and I flew to San Francisco so I could begin five months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments at a major university medical center.
Before the year ended, the library opened — to great acclaim — and I resigned to focus on my health.
Every day in the hospital is monotonously like the day before. And, just like your worst school day, there are tests. Some you pass, some you flunk, and some are inconclusive. After one of my tests, a nurse kindly handed me a three-page report with the results. Oddly, I felt empowered. Pen in hand, I underlined every "normal" and every "abnormal" in the report. When I counted the number of "normals," and they exceeded the number of "abnormals," I felt naively triumphant.
Words, it turns out, are as potent as drugs.
Wielding a pen reminded me that, even though I was tethered to a drip bag, my intellectual curiosity was alive and well. Taking my pen to the daily newspaper, I wondered what words would inform the average citizen about civic involvement. I looked for those with civic-minded or socially conscious meaning: humanitarian, social-service agency, homelessness.
My intent was not to document the vocabulary of government and electoral politics but to find references to the nonprofit world. Surprisingly, the business section yielded a treasure trove of concepts I might have overlooked except for my fund-raising background: venture philanthropy, strategic giving, social entrepreneurship. There were fascinating profiles of tech-world millionaires tackling global poverty.
I was underlining and clipping like a maniacal lexicographer. Writing what I dubbed a "civic dictionary" was presumptuous, but so was surviving cancer. I wanted to do both.
Once back home, I typed up an alphabetical list of several hundred words I had collected and brainstormed. I included proper names like Bono and Teach for America because profiles of individuals and organizations like these reflect the dynamism of civil society. To identify potential readers, I reflected on the Seattle conference. What if each registration packet had included a pocket-size dictionary so that if, for example, you had gone to the workshop on employee volunteer programs, you could have looked up the definition of "corporate social responsibility"?
Now, in the course of my research, I am monitoring three shifts in thinking and behavior that are changing how we describe ourselves to the general public and how we talk to each other.
First, nonprofit professionals are coming together in Washington in June for the second Nonprofit Congress. On the initiative of the National Council for Nonprofit Associations and 41 state associations, they have recognized the need to speak with a single voice about the critical role filled by nonprofit organizations.
I anticipate they will eventually find that the word "nonprofit" is inadequate, relegate it to the tax code, and replace it with a brand name that is more descriptive and less passive.
Second, there is a groundswell of support, endorsed by all of the presidential candidates, for universal, voluntary national service modeled on AmeriCorps (which is not the household word that the Peace Corps was for boomers). Youth Service America and the Corporation for National and Community Service have just started a project to involve people ages 5 to 25 in a Semester of Service.
At the state level, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made news a month ago when he appointed the first-in-the-nation Secretary of Service and Volunteering, focusing public attention on the expectation of service.
Third, there is a wide-ranging and provocative discussion taking place in the philanthropic world, in print, and in the blogosphere about new models like Google.org and "social businesses." Social entrepreneurship is raising the bar for innovation at charities and foundations. Sen. Barack Obama, in his campaign for the presidential nomination, has even proposed creating a federal Social Entrepreneurship Agency. We may find that the phrase "social benefit" (a descriptor already in use) becomes the preferred label for mission-driven organizations. It's not same old, same old.
Those of us who are baby boomers once defined civic participation narrowly as political activism. Now, researching a definition of "civic engagement," I realize how much younger generations have redefined the concept. My oldest daughter is a good example. She pursued community service in college (her major was Russian language), worked two years for the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, earned an M.B.A. in sustainable enterprise, and now works in "green" financing.
Over the past 20 years, while boomers have been waiting for dissent to ignite college campuses, students have been busy, through organizations like Campus Compact, quietly and effectively promoting different forms of civic involvement. In my own backyard at Montana State University, an active chapter of Engineers Without Borders is drilling water wells for schools in Kenya.
One of my research tools, Google's news alerts, locates links to anything on the Web using the word "dictionary." It frequently turns up newspaper stories about Rotary Clubs and other groups that donate free dictionaries to every third- or fifth-grader in their community. Do you think they or their parents would find in those books truly instructive entries for "homelessness" or "nonprofit sector"?
This month, celebrating my 59th birthday, I count myself lucky to be a cancer survivor. Now that I have been home a year, I am finally regaining my physical stamina and mental energy.
The civic dictionary is now titled The Civic Minded Companion (http://www.civicmind.com/alpha) and I have posted 20 definitions on my Web site. I started a blog (http://wwwcivicmind.blogspot.com) with the same title, too. Occasionally, I help groups with fund raising, but only as a volunteer.
I'd rather be an anthropologist who studies our clan and records our lexicon. Words can change the world; they changed me.
Wendy Bay Lewis is an author and founder of CivicMind.com, a Web site on philanthropy and community service. She lives in Bozeman, Mont., and can be reached at email@example.com.