The True Meaning of Commitment
[Note: This article was written in 2017]
Summer 2017 is flying by. As a child, I remember spending long summer days outside in Upstate New York. Those days were full of activity, but also unstructured time, during which we could just enjoy being kids. There is a lot that is therapeutic in spending time with others enjoying the simple pleasures of nature all around you.
Tom Tucker knew that, and knew also that there were many economically disadvantaged children in New York City and Central New York who could not have that experience. So, in 1998, he and a group of Wall Street colleagues created The Fiver Children's Foundation and built Camp Fiver in Earlville, NY. He named the foundation and camp after a character in Richard Adams' famous book "Watership Down" -- the visionary rabbit Fiver, who set out to find a better way of life. What began as a summer camp has evolved into a comprehensive, year-round youth development organization that focuses on cultivating character -- what Fiver calls developing the Whole Self. Its long-term objective is to "graduate" Fivers who: possess 21st century skills to succeed in school and careers; are engaged citizens; and make ethical and healthy life choices. Its programs are experiential, inquiry-based, youth-driven and free of charge to the participants and their families.
But what makes Fiver truly special is its long-term vision and commitment -- to each participant, Fiver pledges 10 years of comprehensive, developmentally appropriate programs and support. Children begin the program at age 8 and graduate at age 18, upon high school graduation.
Think about that for a moment. 10 years for each participant; that is a very big commitment. And note the specific time span -- 8 to 18, probably the most formative years of anyone's life. These kids are by definition disadvantaged, and likely do not have many people around them willing and able to support them in this way. When you make a promise like this, disappointment is not an option. Kudos to Tom and team for having the courage to "go big" in order to make real, long-lasting, positive changes in the lives of so many who will be well positioned to "pay it forward" for years to come.
What prompted me to write this article? I was going through some old files (belated Spring cleaning) and came across a short speech I had given when my wife Helen and I were honored with Fiver's Richard Adams Leadership Award. It reminded me of Fiver's unique role in the development of creative philanthropy, and I felt compelled to share it with a larger audience. So, here it is:
It is a special honor to be recognized by Fiver, because this organization is special to us, and to friends who themselves are very special to us.
Between my profession and the experiences Helen, I and others have had with different charities, we know how difficult it is to match scarce financial support with organizations and activities that will really make a difference. Odd as it may sound, it is hard to do good well.
But Fiver does it well. And Helen and I think that Fiver’s secret has some real parallels to what can help make for a strong marriage, family or business.
First, it’s very personal. Much as we’d like to have big, broad, comprehensive solutions to the world’s problems, real progress is made one person at a time. Fiver focuses on making a real difference in individual lives. Love is always personal.
Second, it’s all about commitment and perseverance. Fiver makes a ten-year commitment to support each student and his or her family. Anyone who has tried to build or run a business knows how critically important it is to have a long-term plan. And how very difficult it can be to stick to that plan through the tough times that inevitably come. This is the danger point for most human activities – families, businesses, charities. We live in an age of instant gratification. We want quick fixes to all life’s problems. Many in philanthropy want to do good, feel good and move on. That is not bad, but it is hard to make real, substantive, fundamental and long-term change that way. Fiver has chosen the better, but harder, route.
Third, it’s about enabling and encouraging independent action for good in the future. In families, it’s often referred to as giving children “roots and wings” and hoping that they learn from the example of others the importance of living life for more than just themselves. In business, it’s the concept of the corporate spin-off or the incubator fund in venture capital. In philanthropy, it’s the idea of seed funding, or basic infrastructure support or what is sometimes called “venture philanthropy.” More colloquially, in everyday life, it’s called “paying it forward.” Fiver does this, and does it well. Every recipient of Fiver’s support is encouraged and expected to take this gift and make good use of it for the benefit of others. Like a family tree whose branches grow exponentially over the years, Fiver’s influence and impact can cover a lot of ground.
So from we five FitzPatricks to the Fivers here and everywhere, we thank you for inviting us to share this very special night with you. Good luck and Godspeed. Thank you so very much.
2018 will mark the 20th anniversary of Fiver's founding. With luck, it will continue for many decades to come. There are good reasons to be very optimistic. The foundation (pun intended) for that success is in place, and every year sees new Fivers graduating into the world they will inherit, better equipped to be the change they and we wish for. To that, and them, we say -- good luck, and Godspeed.