THE BLOG

So, Who Is a Hero Anyway?

10/10/2012 03:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

Lately I've been thinking about heroes. We bandy that word around a lot, and in so doing have come to call almost anyone a hero. The guy who finds a lost wallet, looks inside, finds to whom it belongs and returns it is called a hero. The guy who hits the go-ahead run to win the baseball game is called a hero. But are they? Are those two guys really heroes? Just who decides who is a hero anyway? And just what is the definition of hero?

Look it up. This is one dictionary definition of hero: "A person, typically a man, who is admired for courage or noble qualities." Ah, so this distinction is reserved only for men. And who determines just what those noble qualities are? Undaunted on my quest to find out about heroes I realized that there really are many heroes among us. We may know many of them, but I contend that most we've never heard of. Maybe it's the ones we've never heard of who make the biggest difference. Because within the lack of fame lies the key to selflessness and perhaps true heroism.

This month of October brings the launch date of a book about heroes. It's called Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit At A Time. This is not meant to be a self-serving exercise, but instead a full-throated thank you to 49 people who are doing heroic work in every corner of America and the world. I have read every page of that book and have been enlightened, exhilarated and exhausted by the sheer power of what it takes to make a difference in the world. The one word that is correct in that crazy definition that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece about hero is courage. It does take courage to do heroic things.

Lindsay Avner had the courage to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy at a very young age and then to use her knowledge, experience and determination to found an organization that helps educate and support other women at risk of breast cancer.

Susan Burton grew up in the projects of South Central L.A. and waged a decade-long battle with alcohol and drug abuse, spending time in prison, before she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which offers housing and support to other women being released from prison.

Then there's Taryn Davis who, at 21 years of age, found herself widowed when her husband Michael was killed in Iraq. She mustered her courage and founded the American Widow Project to provide a virtual gathering place for other widows and a 24-hour hotline for those widows to share memories.

And there's Anne Mahlum, who is a marathon runner and the founder of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that uses running to inspire confidence and self-sufficiency among the homeless and also provides educational support and job placements for hundreds.

The list is expansive -- 50 in all -- but I've only touched on a few. I must admit that I limited the list just to a few women in spite of the archaic definition of heroes as typically men. Indeed many in the book are men. In fact, some of the wonderful men doing extraordinary work leave me in just as much awe as the wonderful women do. I'm actually thankful that all these folks do what they do. They make our country and our world a better place.

Most of them are not household names. Some of them are. All 49 of them are role models of the greatness of the nonprofit world and those who work in it.

I am a great believer in nonprofit service. And service it is. I remember growing up in the '50s and '60s and we talked about young men who were "in the service." We don't usually refer to our men and women in uniform as in the service anymore. We say they are in the Army or they are a member of the Marine Corps. But they are in the service. In the service to our country.

So, too, are the men and women who work in the nonprofit sector. They are in service to our country as well. While we don't salute them when we see them, it's probably because they don't wear uniforms that differentiate them from anyone else. But salute them we must, because without them some of the great breakthroughs in social, medical, educational, and entrepreneurial innovation would not be possible.

The foreword in the book was beautifully written by Arianna Huffington. She says, "...we need to understand that the most important goal of all this connectivity is to allow us to see ourselves as an extended family living in an interconnected world with responsibilities to one another."

We do have responsibilities to ourselves and to one another. And perhaps that is the truer definition of what a hero is: one who understands that he or she has a responsibility not just for self, but also for others.

True confession here: When the wonderful folks at Welcome Books called to interview me for this book, I was incredulous and honored. Through it I have come to realize that there really are at least 49 heroes changing the world one nonprofit at a time. I would love to sit down with each and every one of them and pick their brains about how I can raise my nonprofit to the high standards they have met and then do what all of us in the nonprofit world need to do: share the word that we are all in this together, and we have a shared responsibility to make a difference in a small piece of the world.

Then, at the same time we are making a difference, we will also be making heroes, whether we ever know their names or not.