Bill Shore's Commencement Speech

Saturday, May 17, 2008
SNHU Communications Office

(Listen to Shore's speech; from on campus or off campus.)


Thank you President LeBlanc and congratulations to each of you.

First I must break the news to you that while you probably feel you have finally reached the point where you no longer have to worry about being graded, I am afraid that is not the case. I have been out of college for more than 30 years and just received another report card, perhaps my most important ever.  From my father-in-law...

Because of the pressing business at hand, I will say only three things to you this morning about my experiences and your opportunities, and then sit down. 

First, as much as I appreciated that generous introduction, you should know that while everything that President LeBlanc said is true, that is not who I am. At least it is not, and of course could not be, all of who I am.  Yes, it is true that I worked in government and started Share Our Strength and that we raised more than $200 million and that I was included as one of America’s Best Leaders in U.S. News and World Report, but that is only part of who I am.

I am also the son of a loving mother who died from a drug overdose. I am someone who has jumped on a plane every Saturday for the last 10 months to visit one of my closest family members – in prison. I was a principal architect of three losing presidential campaigns, one of which spent more than four years paying off its debts. And oh, after graduating law school I failed the bar exam. Twice.  I tell you this not for sensationalism’s sake or to gain sympathy, or even to get and hold your attention, as desperately as I’d like to do that for the next 10 minutes. 

I tell you this to persuade you that no life, not even a successful life, perhaps especially not a successful life, is lived as an unbroken string of successes. And indeed the shortcomings, failures and even bad luck that are an inevitable part of being human need not hinder your success in the least if you know what to take from and do with them.

I also tell you this in the hope that whenever you think you know someone you will try to remember that you usually only know what they have chosen to let you know, or what others have told you about him or her. You won’t and can’t know what they carry with them, what St. Exupery referred to when saying “what’s essential is invisible to the eye,” and whether it has made them stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, better or worse. Being ever conscious of this may not make you more successful, but it will make your life richer in immeasurable ways.

Second, as diverse as you are in your intellect, appetites, energies, appearance and ambition, you share in common these world-changing powers: to share your strength and create community wealth, and to bear witness

One is the power to share your strength, whatever particular strength it may be. Share Our Strength was built on the belief that everyone has a strength to share, sometimes a gift that you may take for granted but that can be deployed to benefit others. I’m talking about something more than writing a check once you are financially successful, or volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter. I’m talking about giving of yourself, of your unique value added, as chefs have done by cooking at food and wine benefits or by teaching nutrition and food budgeting skills to low-income families. In the same way we have engaged authors, architects, public relations and marketing executives, and numerous others.

As a result we have helped to build the emergency food assistance network in the country, distribute 2.4 billion pounds of food, add millions of students to the school breakfast program, and made a life and death difference in places like Haiti and Ethiopia.

Another is the power to create community wealth. When we created Share Our Strength, we wanted to be a grantmaker but not a re-grantor; we wanted to create new wealth rather than just redistribute wealth.

Of the $210 million we’ve raised and spent at Share Our Strength, more than half comes not from charitable dollars but from corporate partnerships, cause-related marketing, licensing and other activities that essentially represent commerce. And we realized that most nonprofit organizations, in the course of pursuing their mission, create assets that have a marketplace value and can be leveraged into revenue-generating opportunities. Examples include:  Pioneer Human Services, Greyston Bakery, Care Alliance, etc.  

An age-old issue expounded upon at moments like this is the choice you face between doing well and doing good, between creating wealth and serving the public interest, and what I am here to tell you today is that for the first time in history, it is no longer a choice of one or the other, but an unprecedented challenge for your generation to create wealth to serve the public interest.  For more than two decades I have lived this opportunity at Share Our Strength, the anti-hunger organization I established which has raised, earned and spent more than $200 million to feed hungry children. 

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the power to bear witness. Whether you graduated magna cum laude or by begging your professors to pass you, each and every one of you has this gift in equal measure. The power to bear witness is the power to go, see, feel and share what you have felt.

I went to Ethiopia during a famine and to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina.  What I really wanted to do was to go and see for myself what had happened and how the victims were coping. I wanted to go and see and allow myself to feel things about what I’d seen, and then share what I’d felt. I had less of a sense that I could effect change than that I would be changed by the emotions - sadness, sympathy, despair, anger, outrage and ultimately hope  - that are the inevitable response to such a situation.

That is what it means to bear witness. You “bear” witness because what you experience weighs on you. And one way to accommodate such a weight is to redistribute and share the load.

When something affects us powerfully, we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said “be the change you want to see in the world.”  

Indeed I was moved and ended up bringing others to Ethiopia and New Orleans to share the experience, and writing to literally thousands about it. Before we knew it, more than $2 million had been raised and our volunteers had helped re-open a school, fund the food banks, begin the restoration of a fishing village, and find housing for returning employees so that restaurants and other businesses could re-open.
Bearing witness has always been the essential prerequisite for changing society’s most grievous conditions, for righting injustice, for reaching out to those in need. In the 21st century bearing witness is destined to become an even more powerful tool for advancing social change. 

Technology today yields information at unprecedented speeds and quantities. But much of it  - delivered via cable news, talk radio, the Internet and other media - is devoted to faux drama that masquerades as relevant to our lives, like celebrity court trials, or the weekend when CNN and other outlets devoted two days of live coverage to the story of a runaway bride.

The irony is that real life-and-death dramas of enormous consequence surround us, on our street corners, in public schools, in the homes of new immigrants, across town and across the globe. Behind each organization in the Catalogue for Philanthropy an authentic drama unfolds.

A generation ago, individual civil disobedience transformed public opinion and public policy on civil rights. Citizen protest and dissent led to America’s withdrawal from an unpopular war.  Each of those means served the moment. But ours is a new moment and what it calls for is bearing witness: to injustice where it is perpetrated; to unequal opportunity where it is tolerated; to hunger and despair where America’s children suffer. 

Many engaged in philanthropy come to it with bold ambitions to make the world a better place. If history is a guide, we will experience successes and failures along the way. There will surely be legitimate excuses on those occasions when we fail. But there are no excuses for not seeing or knowing how our fellow citizens live. Take the opportunity to do so in your own way and time. Go somewhere you haven’t been and see something you haven’t yet seen. Look until you feel something and then tell someone what you’ve seen and felt. This is what it means to bear witness. This is what it takes to change the world.

Third and finally, try to let the world see you for who you really are, as I have tried to do today. Not because it will always be attractive or appealing, but because in the long run you really don’t have a choice.  People will figure it out anyway, and even if they don’t, you surely will. 

Most often when we stand where I am standing we share what my wife, Rosemary, calls our front stage life. But of course we all have back stage lives as well. And as Rosemary understood long before I did, we will live longer and healthier if our front stage and back stage life are one and the same, if you live an undivided life.  It is the richest blessing I can wish for each of you.

No one spoke more eloquently about the need to share our strengths than the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote:

We are others harvest
We are each others business
We are each others magnitude
And bond.

I have learned that these words are true. Whether you are a banker on Wall Street or a baker on Main Street, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether you are an engineer or an educator, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether you design video games for next year or cathedrals that last centuries, we are each other’s harvest.

Thank you and congratulations.

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