In a late-afternoon Zoom call, Suzanne Graney smiles as she reflects on the bond she forged with a Four Diamonds family. She is the executive director of the Hershey-based organization, which seeks to defeat childhood cancer and supports children and families in the fight against it at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.
“I love when I get a text like, ‘Hey, he just hit this baseball, and he’s able to play baseball because Four Diamonds helped save his life,’” she said. “Those are things that help you get past the pieces that are sad.”
It’s emotional work, and Graney is happy to be real about it.
“I think it’s really important to talk about the fact that there is an emotional component to the work that we do in any nonprofit space,” she said. “We are about changing and saving people’s lives, and that comes with pain. Figuring out our own healthy ways of dealing with that pain is part of our responsibility as professionals so that we can show up as compassionate and caring individuals to help drive our missions forward.”
Four Diamonds and THON – Penn State’s dance marathon and fundraiser benefiting Four Diamonds – are entering their 50th anniversaries. In the Q&A below, Graney reflects on her role and the mission. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Describe the moment you fell in love with Four Diamonds’ mission.
Pretty early on, there were two very compelling stories.
One was a single mom who was talking about her son who was a teenager in the middle of a fight, and she said, “You know, you didn’t just take that financial burden off of me. You took it off my son.” It kind of hit me, like, wow, what tremendous guilt must go along with this for somebody who is diagnosed. I hadn’t really thought about that perspective up to that point. It was such a powerful revelation because I thought about what this means to the parents who are the financial managers of the family and hadn’t really thought about, in addition to the fear and the pain that goes along with treatment, to have that guilt and be able to take that away – what a tremendous gift that is for a family.
The other story was the first patient I got to meet who unfortunately died during that year, a couple weeks before THON. I started my role in September and THON was coming down the pike in February, so five months in, I knew I was going to be in this big, huge event. I got to THON, and I kept seeing students holding up this inflatable giraffe, and I couldn’t figure out what this giraffe was about. The students who were holding that up were the THON organization that this young woman’s family was paired with, and her favorite animal was a giraffe. Those students were holding it to honor her.
It was so powerful to see how deep the connections are, how meaningful these relationships are and the privilege I have in this role to connect our community to these families, the students and to introduce to our community why this is important, who it is that we fight for and why we still fight.
How do you balance the emotional aspect of this job?
We talk about it as a team because it’s important for the team to know it’s OK to feel and we want to feel. I’ve thought to myself the day that I stop crying about this is the day I shouldn’t be doing this because we’re talking about human life, opportunity, dreams, possibilities and the power that we have collectively to positively impact somebody’s life when they’re facing cancer and helping them to thrive and survive afterwards. I’ve had to have healthy boundaries, as do all of the team members, and we help each other.
Just this morning, I got an update from our social work team members about three patients we lost recently. So, the note back was about, “I wish I could give you a hug in person. I hope you know how much I appreciate the compassionate care you give to every one of our patients and how important it is that you do what you do.” We make sure that we are having that acknowledgement of the fact that it does hurt, but we also show up when there’s celebration, too. We are joyful. When somebody is ringing that bell and they’re off treatment, that is a big deal, and it deserves great celebration. When somebody hits five years past their treatment and they’re officially cancer-free, that is a day of celebration.
What are the challenges facing nonprofits and philanthropic entities?
You would probably expect me to say that raising money and the competition for dollars is the hardest thing. I actually don’t ascribe to that philosophy. I think we live in a world of abundance, and I feel very strongly that inherently at our core, humans want to help each other. My role is really about facilitating how to do that and providing an opportunity to do that.
It’s an ongoing challenge to juggle between what are the immediate needs of keeping the annual operation going and finding the time to step out of that annual cycle and be able to take the time to explore what is working, what can be improved, where are there opportunities and how to take advantage of those opportunities. It is always worthwhile when you make the time for that long-term, strategic look, but it is hard to juggle those immediate needs and that longer term piece.
I also think there’s a challenge every nonprofit faces in finding the balance between the cost to raise a dollar and having what you need. When your heart is in the mission, you feel that responsibility to use every single dollar wisely and well. That is our responsibility and ultimately we’re all working for the fulfillment of whatever mission we’re driving for, but I have found if we’re not investing in things like technology, staff development or sustainable solutions for longer term impact, we’re not taking advantage of the opportunity to grow and have a greater impact. Being solution-focused and not looking at it as problems in the nonprofit space but looking for solutions is an ongoing mindset that I have to self-correct on frequently, and when I do, that’s when I find that doors open and the path is provided.