Some people guess that it’s the gift of time, or the gift of something handmade, or the gift of compassion, the gift of listening, the gift of service; the guessing goes on. But many people rarely see it—the best kind of gift anyone ever gets is the unexpected gift, the one they never dreamed they’d get.
There’s nothing better in life than a pleasant surprise. I remember G. K. Chesterton’s characterization of a spiritual experience as the one in which you get an unexpected feeling of “absurd good news.”
When cancer research fund-raiser Mike Bassoff began to realize this, he instituted a program with his staff called “Innovative Thank you’s.” He realized that an expected thank you was practically worthless to his cause, because it is instantly forgotten. But a thank you that was unexpected would be remembered forever. So his team constantly experimented with thanking people in ways they didn’t expect.
Mrs. Harvey Johnson lived in Omaha, Neb., and had lost her son a number of years prior to lymphoma. She was terribly depressed at the time as only someone who has lost a child can understand. Years later, she told the story of her son’s death to Michael Bassoff, and he listened. Soon after the conversation, she donated $50,000, which was used to buy new laboratory equipment for doctors experimenting in lymphoma research. A year later, those same doctors had achieved a breakthrough in experiments they were doing on the blood of lymphoma patients.
Whereas most fundraisers would have given Mrs. Johnson a pen and pencil set or a wall plaque to thank her for her donation, Bassoff arranged for her name to get prominent mention in an article in the obscure hematology journal, Blood. The journal recounted the experimental breakthroughs made by the doctors.
When the magazine came out, Bassoff traveled to Omaha unannounced to present Mrs. Johnson with copies.
“I’m going to be honest with you Mrs. Johnson,” Bassoff said, as the surprised woman invited him into her living room, “This isn’t going to make you famous because no one reads this journal but hematologists. But there are, quite frankly, eight people who are walking around today who wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for you.”
Bassoff handed the stunned woman the journal and pointed to her name, saying, “You’ve done something very important as a way of honoring the memory of your son.”