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HETRICK: Let's make Thanksgiving a year-round concept

November 21, 2009

A few weeks ago, I went to an awards banquet at my alma mater. After drinks, dinner and opening remarks, the recipients were introduced and launched into their acceptance speeches.

Like Oscar winners, they thanked the presenters, the judges, their parents, their significant others, their teachers, their mentors, their colleagues, their kids, their … well, you get the picture.

The endless lists of gratitude didn’t equate to “I Have a Dream” speeches. But collectively, they made clear that few of us fare well of our own accord.

A few years back, I was part of a research team studying corporate philanthropy. We wanted to know why company decision makers give, why they don’t and how that was changing.

Among many questions, we asked, “When’s the last time someone surprised you with gratitude?”

The almost-universal answer: Never.

One donor said she’d raised more than a million dollars for a particular cause every year she’d been with her company, “and every year, I get the same 8-1/2-by-11 plaque at the back of the room at the annual meeting.”

Since January, I’ve been teaching development officers and other not-for-profit leaders about the lessons they can glean from Campaign 2008. One of those lessons: Surprise people with gratitude.

As an experiment—and to learn how I was treated as a donor—I made 30 small contributions to 14 candidates, Republican and Democrat, from state representative to president of the United States.

On election night, only one surprised me with gratitude—the one with the most people to thank.

Twenty minutes before he took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park to make his acceptance speech, I received a text message and an e-mail from president-elect Barack Obama. He said this wasn’t his victory, it was our victory. And he was grateful.

The personalized messages (a hallmark of contemporary campaigns) were addressed “Dear Bruce” and signed “Barack.”

John McCain sent a similarly thoughtful e-mail later in the week—a lesson that you don’t have to win to be grateful, and you don’t have to limit your gratitude to top-level supporters.

While there were acknowledgements at the time of my other campaign contributions, no other candidate—for state legislature, attorney general or governor—surprised me with gratitude.

It’s a lost opportunity, because a surprising thank you (and they’re rare animals) can transform “I,” “me” and “mine” into “we,” “us” and “ours.”

This Thursday, we Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. As has been customary for centuries, many will gather with friends, family or strangers—then overeat to honor the bounty of this year’s harvest and the promise of seasons yet to come.

If everything you know about the “first” Thanksgiving was learned in kindergarten, you probably know the myth about English separatists (affectionately called “Pilgrims”) hosting a cozy cornucopia at Plymouth Colony in 1621 for their new friends, the Wampanoag. We’ve been led to believe the settlers surprised the natives with gratitude.

In reality, the parties at the alleged feast weren’t so friendly. The Wampanoag (who knew the land and how to nurture it) were more likely to have provided any bounty. The settlers were struggling and dying. And there was considerable tension on both sides, the new arrivals having stolen Wampanoag food, robbed Wampanoag graves and intending to take Wampanoag land.

Besides, the French likely celebrated the “first” European Thanksgiving on New World soil decades earlier in Florida.

But hey, it’s a myth—one grounded in sowing, reaping, sharing, thankfulness and hope. Who can argue with lessons like that?

The question is whether we can ever muster the hard work, cooperation and gratitude instilled in that myth—and not just on one Thursday in November. Can we ever see, serve, honor and respect “We the People” instead of “me The person”? Can we continually surprise one another with gratitude?

In my little colony, on Thanksgiving Day, people donate money, contribute food and wake up early to serve meals to the homeless. But woe (and a tea party) unto those who’d suggest a tax increase to feed, clothe and shelter the indigent the rest of the year.

In my little colony, on Thanksgiving Day, we thank God for our good health. But many are fighting with all their power and might to ensure that millions among us never have their health insured.

In my little colony, on Thanksgiving Day, we celebrate the hard work and collaborative effort that make our harvests possible. But often, throughout the year, our sense of entitlement waxes as our work ethic wanes.

So as we “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” here’s my Thanksgiving prayer: For us as a nation, as a people and as a community to package the values in that first Thanksgiving myth and not only celebrate them, but also practice them, 365 days a year.

For that, we’d all be surprised with gratitude.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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