It is 16,100 feet from the foot to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. The dormant volcano in Tanzania is the highest mountain in Africa. People die trying to walk up the trails. Now think about doing it walking on your hands.
Spencer West did that and it wasn’t a stunt. West had both legs amputated at the pelvis at age 5. It is one of the many challenges the 38-year-old has overcome. Scaling the mountain is not what people immediately ask him. The first question is how he lost his legs (amputation due to illness), how he goes to the bathroom (like anyone else), and if he can drive a car (yes, using hand controls).
He captivated the audience during the opening general session of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) annual international conference on Sunday, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. Roughly 3,400 fundraisers and vendor representatives are in attendance. The event has been rebranded as AFP ICON.
Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, president and CEO of AFP, led the opening general session saying that one-third of those at the conference were there for the first time and another third had been to the annual conference but not last year.
West talked about “redefining the possible” and not realizing he was different until he went out in the world. He has had numerous moments of clarity along the way. He ran into a friend after parking in a disabled reserved space at a shopping center. The friend asked why he used the space, saying “you’re the least disabled person I know.”
You have to find the lesson in every challenge, said West, a Wyoming native who now lives in Canada working for the nonprofit We.org. There are three critical elements of day-to-day life: find the lesson, ask for help, and create social value.
The parking issue was one instance of finding the lesson. There were others. Asking for help opened doors, everything from asking friends for career advice which led to working for the nonprofit but also in scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. While he walked much of it on his hands, his friends helped push him in a wheelchair for part of the trip and another friend helped to carry him. When they got altitude sickness and he didn’t, he supported and encouraged them.
The key is not only asking for help but also offering it, he said.
He learned about creating social value starting in high school as a male cheerleader. The school didn’t fund cheerleading as a sport but said if they won the state championship in cheer the school would fund it the next year. It wouldn’t help him since he was a senior. They won and the school funded cheer, creating value.
It can be easy to forget why fundraisers — or anyone — do what they do each day. You have to take the time to re-energize and think back to the “why” element of the professional equation.
You can tackle any goal, whether personal or professional, so long as you keep those three elements in the forefront, he said.