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.