Lee Woodruff knows a thing or two about optimism. Her husband, Bob Woodruff, co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, suffered severe brain injury four years ago when the vehicle he was in ran over a roadside bomb while he was reporting from Iraq. With four children to raise, Lee, an author and contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America, stood by her husband’s side as he miraculously recovered.
The Bob Woodruff Foundation was born from the tragedy. Lee became an unlikely ambassador for injured veterans and their families. During Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) 47th annual conference keynote address last night in Baltimore, Md., Lee told her story of family survival and perseverance, and emphasized the importance of personal resonance in the charitable sector.
Using her own experience, she launched a platform to educate and advocate for the 320,000 soldiers who suffer from brain injury after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lee and Bob help to ensure injured vets receive proper care and are integrated back into their communities upon returning home.
“You can fill in the blank on the roadside bomb,” she said. “We will all meet something in life that will simply be bigger than us. When something bad happens, you can get bitter or you can get better…this was my way of getting better.”
The injury was so public, Lee said Bob believed it necessary to become a part of the path to recovery for injured soldiers, and the five million people in the U.S. that live with brain injury.
“This war is very different from Vietnam,” Lee said. “No one can let down in this war, there is a constant threat no matter where you are. You’re not safe, and that creates actual chemical differences in the brain. They may not have a scratch on them, but the soldiers are traumatically different.”
Through attaching a personal story to their charity, the Woodruffs are connecting with the public, and also bouncing back from their own personal disaster. Lee said turning sadness into passion has helped to anchor her in the present, and focus on making a difference.
“In the giving back is also a healing, and for those of you who have found your cause, you understand what I am saying,” she said. “The fact that you are all here, and trying to do it (fundraising) better in a crappy economical era; it’s a source of pride for all of us.” Lee is not the only person feeling optimistic these days. Paulette V. Maehara, CEO of the AFP, said 60 percent of fundraising professionals surveyed by the AFP this year said they believe they would raise more funds in 2010, as compared with only 30 percent last year.
“The confidence level is rising, and better times are coming,” Maehara said. “I also think we have to balance optimism with reality. Most economists agree that the recovery is going to happen, but rebuilding the economy will happen slowly. It will not affect everyone in the same way.”
Even in dire times, Lee said it is important to focus on the good the charitable sector continues to do, even in the face of landmark challenges.
“The personal can become passionate,” she said. “Those stories are how you are able to do what you do so well and turn the work you do into something effective. I don’t think I ever imagined how good it would feel. There is something incredibly powerful about what you all are doing.”