Third Sector Grit

A series on the driving—but often unrecognized—forces behind many nonprofits.

Grit, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a “firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  The nonprofit sector is great for many reasons, but one of the main reasons for its greatness is what I term, “Third Sector Grit,” which lives out every day in the many stories of unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.  It is a quality that is abundant and at times minimized in the face of “innovation.”

Third Sector Grit is most times not the stories of the sector’s executive leaders; more often it refers to those community champions in each nonprofit who do not have the larger titles but without whom the organization could not move forward.  I would venture to say that the definition of Third Sector Grit is the individuals and stories in each nonprofit that showcase its most valuable asset, the ‘firmness of spirit and unyielding courage in the face of the hardship’ toward fulfilling its mission.

In this series, I highlight individuals who embody the notion of Third Sector Grit. In a search for individuals, I received dozens of e-mails from around the world nominating individuals. Here, we highlight Donna Hill.  Donna Hill is Head of Media Relations for the Performing Arts Division (PAD) of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a volunteer position. Her title was insisted upon by the president of NFB and for two years Donna has donated this work from her home in Pennsylvania. 

Donna Hill

Donna Hill is blind as a result of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative disease with which she was born.  Mainstreamed in public school in the 1950’s, she received little help and was subjected to bullying.  Donna says “teachers would either assume I was faking my vision problem, or they wouldn’t let me try anything.”  After graduating from college, she taught herself Braille and received her first of four guide dogs from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

After working as a welfare caseworker in Philadelphia, Donna began pursuing her childhood dream of supporting herself as a musician. Hill, who taught herself to play guitar, had been writing songs since she was fourteen. As a regular street performer and her own agent, Donna became a popular Philadelphia area motivational speaker/singer.  Donna is also a two-time breast cancer survivor.  The financial and energy drain of overcoming this disease delayed her, but now Donna has come back stronger than ever. After moving to rural Susquehanna County, she mastered the use of a computer with a screen reader.

Through Donna’s efforts, PAD has found outlets to promote its work which have led to donations to the scholarship fund and purchases of “Sound in Sight”—a multi-genre collection of 18 original tracks and covers, donated by blind musicians. This month, PAD will award its first scholarship. Donna is motivated by the continued struggles of blind Americans to gain acceptance and opportunity—problems that persist despite legislative change, advances in technology and the extraordinary achievements of some blind individuals. Two thirds of working-age, blind Americans are currently unemployed and many live in poverty. Only 10 percent of blind children are taught Braille, despite strong Braille literacy/success links.

Issues affecting blind Americans rarely make mainstream news, and Donna believes helping blind entertainers gain national spotlight will improve public acceptance and opportunity for all blind Americans.  “There hasn’t been a new, blind American superstar in decades,” says Hill, “And, Helen Keller, who died over fifty years ago, is still the only blind woman most people can name. I’m hoping our work at PAD will elevate a new generation of blind performers to the national stage.”

Donna is now 60 and has retired from pursuing her own music career, but she is dedicated to making the path easier for young blind people. One of her greatest passions is smoothing the path for the “not-yet-blind.” Most blind people grew up sighted and carry with them the misunderstandings of the general society—overcoming the negative beliefs about blindness is the hardest task for the newly blind. If they believed as sighted people that blindness has to be a devastating condition, that they won’t be able to do the things they love and they won’t be able to live independently, they succumb to those prejudices, which become self-fulfilling prophecies. Donna is very aware of the increase in blindness, and often points to the CDC’s 2008 predictions that diabetes-related blindness among working-age Americans will triple by 2050.

Donna continues to have energetic goals. She hopes to find a publisher for her first fantasy novel, which features a 14-year-old blind girl who is a songwriter. It is her hope that in reading an exciting adventure in which a blind girl plays a prominent role, people will be more inclined to view blind people as contributors to society instead of assuming they cannot live independent, productive, and happy lives. “Unfortunately,” Donna states, “many of us are programmed to believe that the people who overcome obstacles are those who never doubt that they will and are never afraid. Most of us, however, stumble, fall and pick ourselves up again and again on our journey through life’s road-blocks.”

Read more stories by John Brothers.