A new look at a big question. Inspired by The Calling, a PBS mini-series.
This piece originally appeared on Ethan Austin's blog at GiveForward.com . It appears here with permission from Ethan as part of What's Your Calling's Blog Tour.
I work at a company called GiveForward that helps people fighting cancer and other illnesses to pay their medical bills. A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in a blog tour called “What’s Your Calling” that explores the notions of calling from religious and secular perspectives. So when I started thinking about the question of calling, I first thought that my calling is to help people fighting illnesses. But as I thought about the question more, I realized that as passionate as I am about helping people, my calling in its most basic form is simply making people smile.
Every day I go to work, I realize how blessed I am. I get and do something I am absolutely passionate about, and I get to share this experience with an incredibly wonderful group of co-workers who bring smiles to people’s faces everyday. I couldn’t think of a better job. But if you asked me ten or twenty years ago what I’d be doing today, never in a million years would I have guessed it would be this.
You see, when I was six I wanted to be a real estate developer. Yep, a real estate developer. I don’t know how this crazy notion popped into my head, but for the longest time I thought this would be my calling. I was going to develop commercial real estate. Seven years later, my dad passed away from colon cancer, and I came to the conclusion that life is too short to develop strip malls and parking garages. I wanted to do something to help people.
So in high school I started volunteering for a cancer organization called Kids Konnected that helps children cope with the loss of a parent to cancer. I enjoyed it, but at the time, I didn’t feel like it was my calling. When I entered college I continued to volunteer at cancer organizations, but like most college kids I was more interested in keg stands and beer pong than I was in helping people with cancer.
Towards the end of my junior year I started to think hard about what I really wanted to do with my life. Most of my friends were in the undergraduate business program and were going off to New York to become investment bankers. As a political science major with less-than-stellar math skills, this was not an option for me. Instead, like every other political science major who doesn’t know what the heck to do with a liberal arts degree, I applied to law school.
Law school was a challenge for me. After my first year, I remember coming home for the summer and telling my mom that I wanted to quit and become a river raft guide. I loved being outdoors and when I thought of my happiest times, several of them were river rafting. Maybe this would be my calling? Well, my mom wasn’t having any of this river raft nonsense so I begrudgingly went back to law school the next fall. I worked hard and made Law Review, but for the first time in my life I couldn’t just breeze through classes, cram at the end of the semester and then ace the exam. I actually had to study. And I found out that no matter how hard I studied, there were always people who would do better than me on the exams. It was very humbling and it made me realize that I wasn’t going to succeed in a career where you had to always out-smart your competition. I needed to find a career where you could simply out-care the competition.
Fortunately, while I was in law school, I finally discovered my calling. During my last year of law school, my buddy Ned convinced me to train for a marathon. I had never run more than five miles in my life, but I decided to give it a shot. And since, I would probably never run another marathon I decided I might as well use this opportunity to raise money for a good cause. So I signed up to run for St. Jude, which raises money to fight children’s cancer.
St. Jude had given me a personal fundraising page and I gladly spammed all my friends and family with email updates about my training and asked them to donate to my page. Within a week I hit my goal of $1000 and it was such an incredible high that I decided to up the goal to $5000. But then I hit a wall. Once I raised about $2500, I had tapped out all my friends and family and I realized that if I was going to hit my goal, I was going to have to get creative.
I had always been good at making people laugh and I thought to myself, if I can get people to smile, I can get people to donate. I had a banana costume lying around my apartment from the previous Halloween and decided to dust it off and start doing my training runs up and down the streets of Washington, DC in this costume. I handed out little cards to people on the street promising that if I hit my goal of $5000, I would run the marathon in the banana costume. Well, people got a kick out of seeing some goofball jogging around DC dressed as a banana giving out high fives and business cards to people. Word spread quickly and within a few days of my first banana run, dozens of $10 and $20 donations starting pouring in from all over the country. I ended up surpassing my goal and raising over $6000 for cancer research. Finally, I had found something in my life that I absolutely loved. I was having fun, doing good, and helping others. Now, if I could only make a career out of this, I figured I’d be set.
One of my biggest takeaways from my marathon experience was just how phenomenal a tool these personal fundraising pages were. I had never seen a personal fundraising page before this and I was absolutely blown away by how effective it was. The problem with the marathon, however, was that runners could only choose from one of about twenty-five official charity partners if they wanted to raise money. I ended up raising money for children’s cancer but if I had had the choice to raise money for anything, I would have raised money for colon cancer since that is what my dad had passed away from. I thought to myself why limit it to just the twenty-five official charity partners of the marathon? Why not open it up so that every person that cares about a particular cause has access to a fundraising page?
Fast forward a year — I had graduated law school but I still couldn’t get this idea out of my head. So I began doing some research and planned to start a company where people could create a fundraising page for any non-profit cause. I had told a handful of people of this idea but unfortunately none of my friends were willing to quit their jobs and start this company with me and I didn’t have the guts to do it by myself.
Then in February of 2008 I got a phone call from an ex-girlfriend in Chicago. She told me she met this woman, Desiree Vargas, at a Super Bowl party who had a similar idea and was starting a company called GiveForward where people could raise money for anything, not just non-profits. She gave me Desiree’s number, and after a couple of weeks I finally decided to call. Within the first minute of our phone conversation I could tell Desiree was incredibly passionate about her idea. We instantly clicked, and without so much as giving it a second thought, I packed up everything I owned into two suitcases and moved half way across the country to help start GiveForward.
That was three years ago. Today, GiveForward has helped thousands of people raise over $4.5 million for their loved ones’ medical expenses as they battle cancer and other illnesses. It has been a wild journey so far and I couldn’t be happier with the direction of where the company is going. But what I am most proud of isn’t the amount of money we’ve helped people raise. What I’m most proud of is the small things we do each day to bring smiles to people’s faces.
Every day, all GiveForward team members (from the CEO to the interns) are responsible for giving out at least one “virtual hug” to a customer on the site. Usually this is just a quick email that may include a joke, a quick pick-me-up or some words of encouragement. But these small gestures can mean a world of difference for someone battling cancer. And it is this ability to touch people’s lives that makes our jobs so fun. So, while I am incredibly passionate about fundraising and even more passionate about helping people with cancer, neither of these things are my calling. My calling is simply making people smile and GiveForward is the platform through which I get to do this everyday.
I’ll admit it’s a bit odd to think that my journey started because of a silly banana costume, but that’s my reality. I am a banana person and there’s no denying it. Since that initial banana man marathon, I’ve run two other marathons, countless half marathons and even took a polar plunge in the banana costume all to raise money for cancer organizations. I do it because cancer sucks, but mostly I do it because it’s fun and I like giving out high fives. Now, I sincerely hope that one day I will be remembered for more than just being the weird jogging banana dude. But to be perfectly honest, as long as I make a few people smile along the way, if I’m simply remembered as the banana guy, well, I’m okay with that too.