Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Great Apes

Wauchula, Florida is a tiny little town close to the very middle of the very rural part of the Sunshine state. No high rise condos situated on long sandy beaches. No Cinderella castles or spinning tea cups. No space shuttle launchings. No country clubs and gated communities. Just orange orchards and apes...lots of them!


I spent the weekend with the staff of the Center for Great Apes, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a permanent sanctuary in a safe and enriching environment for orangutans and chimpanzees in need of lifetime care. And I left Wauchula a changed person and a changed coach. Go figure!

The apes--and the humans who care for them--reminded me of some of the bigger lessons of life and the challenges (and joy) of serving leaders of non-profit organizations. I learned valuable things about primates and what's involved in caring for them (all fascinating!) and what really stoked me was how the experience of being with the apes was also a big metaphor for how we humans are (or aren't) with one another.

Some of my (re)learning:
  • Animal rights are parallel to human rights, not subordinate to. I guess it's really about the rights of living creatures. Both efforts are about peace, learning, prosperity, freedom, health, dignity, relationships, rights and responsibilities, community.
  • Caring for animals (and in most cases, caring for people) is service to the voiceless. If not us, who? The staff and volunteers who work with and care for animals are driven by fierce passion.
  • "sanctuary" is a pretty amazing concept, one that deserves attention and contemplation. Animals need it. People need it too.
  • Demand is so much greater than the supply. All of the facilities combined could not accommodate the numbers of great apes needing sanctuary. Think of all the organizations serving humans, and there is still a great need for more.
  • Acting on an idea--in this case, to build a sanctuary for great apes--is a courageous act. Having ideas is one thing; having the courage to act on the idea is another.
  • We have to leverage our success into more and greater success.
  • People want to help animals and other people. Our job is to ask.
  • Expanding the capacity of a non-profit organization is really about being able to expand the ability to care for more clients whether ape or human.
  • Language barriers can be overcome with creativity and willingness. The apes are very clear about what they want and need; the human's job is to listen without the words. Doing so takes skill. What could be if we listened to animals and people with similar focus and intensity and interest?
  • We are often thrown off balance when the simple and the complex collide. For example, feeding apes is simple (although managed by skilled nutritionists) while mastering the use of specialized computer software is complex.
  • What would it be like if living creatures (humans included!) were able to live in the world exactly the way they were intended to live?
  • "Dignity" is a very big idea! What does it mean to have dignity or to ensure dignity? To have the ability to live one's life with dignity and ease--whether ape or human--is a concept worth fighting for.
  • Honoring our "stories" teaches us valuable lessons. Each of our stories shapes us and provides the context for how we live, for how we are understood. Animals have stories. Organizations have stories. People have stories. We have to honor the story as we move forward.
  • It must be easy to exploit animals (many humans are exploited also) since it happens all over the world. Exploitation is quite a business where many people have become very rich. What would it be like to rebalance the equation: where no creature is exploited and they are rewarded for the contribution they can make?
I am flooded with many ideas and concepts stirred by my weekend with the staff and volunteers of the Center for Great Apes. I saw people truly stand in their goodness, their kindness, their greatness. Me too! We worked together, in this case, to create a better sanctuary for apes, a sustainable organization for donors (and apes), and we worked to leverage the history and success of this terrific charity into even greater success. People working together to change the world--one topic at a time--is inspiring and tiring work.

In many ways, the effort was about the apes. In others, it was about the power of people working together for something bigger than themselves.

I highly recommend it!

A few thoughts: What do you notice about yourself and the impact of your contribution when you partner with like-minded people toward a common goal? What does and doesn't work? What is it to be "mission driven" in your work? What do you notice about "yes" and "no" when they are measured directly against the fulfilling of the mission? When the "client" (or the recipient of our effort) is voiceless, how do we know we are making an impact?

And if you feel moved to do so, I invite you to visit the Center for Great Apes on-line and make a financial contribution today. You will grow from the experience.