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Kendra Davenport of Operation Smile: How We Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our…

Kendra Davenport of Operation Smile: How We Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness

Commit to leading with gratitude — that is, consciously commit to looking for the positive in things and striving to look on the bright side and be grateful, rather than the opposite — lamenting the challenges that crop up and overfocusing on the negative. Adopting a positive mindset is an important step toward reaping the benefits of gratitude and restoring our mental wellness. Gratitude improves peoples’ well-being because it helps reduces negative emotions like envy and resentment.

As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.

What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?

One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kendra Davenport.

Kendra Davenport, CFRE, is the Chief Development Officer for Operation Smile, a global surgical nonprofit that brings families renewed hope through cleft surgery and comprehensive care. She previously served as president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation and vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, and other organizations. Recently, she earned an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?

In my senior year of college, I attended a career forum hosted by my school and listened to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer speak about her career path. I was completely enamored with her from the confident, engaging way she spoke, to her manicured nails, perfectly coiffed hair, right down to her black patten leather Ferragamo pumps. I wanted to be like her and thought it would be terrific to learn from her and watch her in action. So, I wrote her a letter (you have to remember this was 1988, and there were no cell phones or Internet) asking if she would consider letting me serve as an unpaid intern for her. She enthusiastically agreed and a few months later, I was taking the train from Chestnut Hill to downtown Philadelphia, where I worked alongside Caroline Stewart, Business Buzz columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, for several wonderful months. At least a few days a week, she would take me to business lunches with her and she always very graciously introduced me to whomever she was meeting, as her “incredible intern.” Most people would politely ask what my plans were after graduation and on more than one occasion, people very generously offered to arrange interviews for me with their company. I interviewed with a shipping company, a hedge fund, the Chamber of Commerce, a major insurance company, a big eight accounting firm and a children’s museum. Caroline was intent on helping me identify a first job that would be educational at a minimum and fulfilling at best.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time to have in Caroline such a wonderful mentor, but three decades later, I strive to be the same to young people who cross my path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I graduated from a small then women’s college and immediately entered the working world as an associate in the development (fundraising department) of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. It was one of the nation’s first tactile, participatory museums designed exclusively for children. I honestly had no idea what development was, but I was grateful for the job and quickly found that I enjoyed helping the museum advance its mission and goals through fundraising and brand raising. Thirty-two years later I am still working in nonprofit development. One of my mentors says I am either a masochist or an eternal optimist. I think I am probably a little of both.

Since that first job, I have been immensely fortunate to have worked for many amazing national and international nonprofits. I think the reason I never veered from the nonprofit sector to the for-profit arena is that I find nonprofit work challenging but exceptionally fulfilling because it has purpose. I believe helping people is a terrifically compelling and rewarding way to spend a career.

There have been many things I have had the good fortune of doing throughout my career, and I have been truly blessed to have worked alongside many incredibly impressive people whose experience and expertise I have taken to heart and emulated. Choosing a particular story that I think would be interesting to others is tricky because I feel so close to my work — it’s personal for me and it always has been. I think that’s why I have been able to forge a pretty nice career for myself … because I am devoted to what I do. I have found that whatever I give of myself to my job tends to come back to me tenfold, time and time again.

Several years ago, when I was working for Africare, I was deep in rural Liberia, touring maternal waiting homes that my D.C.-based development team and I had worked hard to raise the money to construct. I was with a gentleman who now works for Operation Smile, Ernest Gaie. At the time, Ernest was Africare’s Country Director for Liberia. We had been driving literally all day and had participated in several meetings with village officials along the way to a maternal hospital on the Guinean border. I was exhausted, and I can still remember hoping to myself as we approached the very remote hospital that our stop would be brief because I was tired, sweaty, hungry, and longing for a hot shower, and I knew we still had a very long drive to make back to Monrovia.

As we got closer, Ernest telephoned the hospital to let them know we were almost there. When we arrived, we were greeted by a throng of women dressed in white. They broke out into song as soon as we exited the vehicle, welcoming us as a show of appreciation and hospitality. They were so genuine and kind, I was deeply moved. I quickly learned, they were traditional midwives, trained by Africare to safely deliver healthy babies and help ensure mothers were healthy as well. To this day, maternal mortality rates in West Africa are the highest in the world. When I went into the hospital, mothers-to-be were equally happy to see us and welcoming. Many of them had just had their babies and offered to let me hold them. They were also very willing to take pictures with me, which I was just blown away by. I felt very guilty for initially hoping the visit would be quick. I enjoyed talking with them, listening to their stories and seeing their newborn babies so much. The memory is indelibly etched on my mind as one of the most powerfully moving professional experiences I have ever had.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Success is never final, and failure is never fatal.” To be successful in development, you need to put yourself out there. You need to try new things and not be afraid of rejection. The same I think is true in life. If you want to achieve your personal and professional goals, you need to take some risks. If you don’t, you’re not apt to advance in any measurable way. I also think it’s important to constantly reassess and reset those goals — both personal and professional. How else do you stay fulfilled? This line of thought does not resonate with everyone, but I am an ambitious person and once I have attained a goal I established for myself, I move on to another and then another. I think my career is illustrative of the drive and energy I devote to my work. Ambitious women often find that what is applauded in their male counterparts is frowned upon in women. I believe things are getting better and that opportunities to lead in the private and nonprofit sectors are opening up for women, but the working world is still largely dominated by men.

At this stage in my career, I feel obligated to encourage young female professionals to aim higher and to push forward, especially after suffering a setback. I think the best thing female leaders can do is to help pave the way for younger women professionals to overcome barriers to success, while encouraging them to constantly set new goals for themselves. I have been fortunate to have had so many pivotal people throughout my career believe in me, take chances on me, and help create opportunities for me. I am grateful to this day, for the many opportunities other people facilitated for me. Gratitude and my acknowledgement that I would not be where I am today without the help of many others motivates me to pay it forward.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?

I love to read and have read all my life. When I was younger, I read a great deal for pleasure, but as the pace of my life and my career picked up, I found it more difficult to find the time to read for fun. Now that my children are grown and I have more time to devote to my work, I find myself reading more for work than for pleasure, but I admit to stealing time to enjoy a work of fiction every now and then. I am always looking for ways to inspire the team of amazing people I manage, to be more effective in some area of my professional life, or to address something I feel I need help tackling. Most recently, my team and I have been reading Atomic Habits, by James Clear. It’s about the aggregation of marginal gains — how over time, small changes that become habits can add up to big impacts. We have an informal book club that anyone on our team can participate in and the discussions this book has spawned have been remarkable. My original intent in selecting Atomic Habits for my team to focus on and read, was to encourage them to work on the things during the pandemic that they could tangibly influence. Together, we have learned about the benefits and control we could realize if we focused on making small but impactful changes that over time would amount to significant achievements.

Holding book club discussions with members of my team is also a nice way of convening them and inspiring fun, relaxed, participatory discussions that inevitably get people laughing. Facilitating good team communication has taken on greater significance since we began working entirely remotely and laughter in midst of the pandemic has become a soothing tonic that everyone can benefit from and use.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The nature of our work — fundraising, brand, marketing, and communications makes — for an assortment of simultaneous projects that are exciting. For example, we are having early planning discussions about launching a capital campaign through which we will raise at least $40 million in the next two years. The campaign will be a very large, global project that will engage almost everyone on our team of 50. In addition to helping Operation Smile raise its brand awareness and tens of millions of dollars, the campaign will provide most everyone on our team great experience and opportunities to work on new things and to do things that we excel at, in new ways. Projects like this keep our team motivated and enthused about our work, which is critical because development is like the nonprofit version of sales — only it’s much harder and much more subtle.

Another project we are launching, is called the VUCA Workshop series. VUCA, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The intent of the workshop series is to facilitate meaningful discussions about everything people are going through as a result of COVID-19. Because I am very concerned about the mental strain and stress the pandemic is having on my team, I thought we could all benefit from working with experts who through a series of discussions and hands-on exercises will give people some mechanisms and tools to better cope with all that life is throwing at them right now. I truly believe in planning and implementing this series, we are proactively addressing the things that are on everyone’s minds and which are potentially creating mental anguish and anxiety for people that inevitably spills over into their work life. If we can equip them with some helpful ideas and tools to better handle the stress and uncertainty and fear they may be experiencing, we can improve their outlook and possibly their well-being, which is very important to me. I think it’s incumbent on employers to do as much as they can to help employees cope in this crazy time we’re all living in and the VUCA Workshop series is one small initiative aimed at doing just that.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Fortunately, I have many mentors whose guidance and support has helped me throughout my life. My father has served as a guiding star and is a major influence in my life. My husband of 32 years is also a source of near constant guidance and advice, especially regarding management. I believe both he and my father are two of the best managers I know. I frequently seek their advice and while I don’t always abide by it, I sincerely value it.

As I think I said earlier, I have been blessed to work for some wonderful mentors/bosses. One in particular, Judith Jacobson, was my supervisor for nearly 10 years when I worked for the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance. Like many nonprofits, shortly after I began working the Alliance, it experienced a very austere period during which all travel was halted, a hiring freeze was instituted, and money to operate was scarce. Judy took over as CEO during this trying period after the former CEO was let go. She had a very difficult job, and yet, she infused humor into the most challenging of circumstances and was throughout the two-year period incredibly positive and resourceful. I was in awe of her fortitude and mental and emotional strength throughout that time, but it was not until years later that I learned she didn’t pay herself in order to be able to pay me and my colleagues without bankrupting the organization. To make that kind of self-imposed, long term sacrifice for the benefit of her employees and the organization is something that to this day, inspires me to be a better person.

Judy remains one of my most trusted confidants and advisors. I have incredible respect for her.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

I believe gratitude is more a state of mind than an act and to live a life of gratitude, to me, is more about paying it forward, sharing your gifts and time with others. It is a consciousness of the many ways in which you are fortunate and an active commitment to renew that awareness by sharing your bounty and your gifts

It is also about maintaining a positive attitude. Leading with gratitude is empowering. When you consciously acknowledge how fortunate and blessed you are, it’s easier to shrug off the things you cannot control, to ignore little hurts or aggressions we all experience every day — from someone cutting us off in the car, to being left off an email chain you feel you should have been included on.

I frequently remind my team to embody and espouse an attitude of gratitude and to avoid assuming malintent whenever they might feel slighted. Actively striving to live a life of gratitude helps promote a happy, grateful, mindful culture that people enjoy working in.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

I like to believe that there is good in everyone and that we all just experience life in different ways. For some, gratitude is an emotion that is present in everything they experience, in all they do, and in everything they believe. I think people can learn to put gratitude at the forefront of their lives, but I think it comes more naturally when we are raised to be grateful for all that we have, for the gifts we have been given, and for everything good that comes our way.

If it is truly elusive and I am not altogether sure it is, I think that has a lot to do with the environment in which people exist, the influencers they tap into and surround themselves with. I have worked in some of the poorest countries in the world, but felt while there, an omnipresent sense of gratitude in everyone I met. Again, I think it’s about perspective. The India Arie song, “There’s Hope,” illustrates perfectly what I experienced — perspective and taking nothing for granted.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

Expressions of gratitude come in all shapes and forms. When I encourage my team, for example, to put gratitude first, I don’t mean that they should all break out their good stationery and stamps and send people thank you notes — though I don’t think that is ever a bad idea. Gratitude can be expressed in countless ways including giving someone your time when you don’t necessarily have it to spare, putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own because you know or sense they need something more than you do, acknowledging everyone who worked on a project you led, even if their collective contributions do not equal what you alone may have devoted to the effort. These are the small acts and gestures that convey gratitude and promote a culture of kindness, trust and empathy.

Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?

I believe mental wellness is a critical, but all too often overlooked component of health — not just here in the U.S. but all over the world. I think attitudes about mental health and how important it is to just about everything are changing for the better, but there is a long way to go before, as a society, we assertively champion mental health as a means or barrier to well-being. Stigmas around mental health prevent many employers from openly addressing issues such as depression or anxiety.

If the past year has taught me anything with respect to work and my team, the primary lesson has been about the importance of helping people create a culture at work that enables and encourages mental wellness.

When people feel appreciated, it boosts their spirits, so being mindful about recognizing when people have done something special or achieved a goal can change their mood for the better. I know of no one who does not like their efforts recognized, and recognizing people publicly is even more effective. Infusing gratitude is a game changer because if done frequently enough in meaningful ways, it inspires a lightness and happiness. It helps create a culture of kindness. Wouldn’t everyone want to work in an environment where the guiding principles are gratitude, kindness and empathy? By virtue of inculcating gratitude as a highly desirable quality and trait that is valued, respect for one another is facilitated, which is the foundation on which a caring atmosphere is established.

Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Commit to leading with gratitude — that is, consciously commit to looking for the positive in things and striving to look on the bright side and be grateful, rather than the opposite — lamenting the challenges that crop up and overfocusing on the negative. Adopting a positive mindset is an important step toward reaping the benefits of gratitude and restoring our mental wellness. Gratitude improves peoples’ well-being because it helps reduces negative emotions like envy and resentment.
  • By proactively and deliberately striving to thank people for the small and the not so small ways they might help you, you can completely alter the way you are perceived for the better. Acknowledgement is a powerful tool that can touch even the hardest person to get along with. Gratitude is a relationship builder. My husband and my father were active-duty, career officers in the Coast Guard and Navy. I moved frequently as a child and my nomadic lifestyle continued after I married. Many times, shortly after we moved to a new place, thoughtful neighbors would bring baked goods or plants to welcome us to the neighborhood. Their thoughtfulness always touched me and helped me envision my life in our new surroundings. I would always return the gesture within a few weeks and make a point of acknowledging how much their kindness meant to me and my family. Everywhere we have lived, we forged strong and enduring relationships with people who reached out to us almost as soon as the moving truck departed — or sooner! To this day, we remain friends with several of these thoughtful souls and I marvel at the fact that our relationships, now decades old in many cases, began with a simple but kind gesture of gratitude.
  • Sometimes, a small gesture of appreciation can yield unexpected dividends. This is surely true at work but almost everywhere in life as well. Recently, my husband and I helped our middle child move into her first post-college apartment. Because she had not yet applied to the city for a parking permit, she had to park her car in a lot near her apartment. The parking lot attendant was an older gentleman and when my daughter went to pay him, he struck up a conversation with her. They talked for about 10 minutes and at the end of their conversation, he told her he would keep an eye on her car, gave her a “family discount” on the parking fee, and thanked her profusely for taking the time to talk. He told her he got lonely and bored sitting alone all day and that her bright smile and willingness to chat had made his day. By simply treating the older man with respect and kindness, my daughter developed a friend, who in just a few minutes, helped her make the transition to her new independence and home a little easier.
  • I am a practicing Catholic and my faith is integral to every aspect and fiber of my life. I think of it as the greatest gift my parents have ever given me, because Catholicism is predicated on gratitude — we thank God for everything He has given us — from the basic and most banal everyday things to the more amorphous things that are harder to quantify but mean so much to us and define and shape who we are — our intellect, our talents, our health, and our creativity to name a few. I learned at a very young age from Sister Leilia, an Irish Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, that regardless of how badly I thought my day might have been going, the most important thing I could do to turn it around was to thank God for giving it to me. At the time, I truly struggled with her logic, but as I matured and moved up to Sister Rachel’s fifth grade class, I began to understand how much I really had to be grateful for and that understanding became a guiding principle that remains salient to me today as I approach my 55th year on the planet. I attribute the fact that I am not an envious person to my gratitude for who I am, who God made me, and for the many gifts He has given me. It might sound simple and I suppose it is, but I believe gratitude might just be my north star.
  • My mother drilled into me and my siblings the importance of writing and mailing thank you notes. It often felt as though no sooner than we had blown out our birthday candles than we were required to sit at the kitchen table, write a draft on scratch paper and then pen a formal note of appreciation to everyone who had given us a gift. Today, my dear mom is nearing 80 and our family jokes about writing her a thank you note before we get whatever she has mailed us from the mailbox to the house. We all write thank you notes that sometimes seem superfluous, but more often than not, become treasured, sometimes humorous or sentimental mementos. The act of putting your feelings on paper is powerful and tangible expression of gratitude that means a lot to people. As soon as Operation Smile began working entirely remotely last March, I became concerned about how I was going to help my team stay connected, feel supported, and maintain the elusive esprit de corps we enjoyed. I began writing and sending each of them cards once or twice a month and I have tried to maintain that written, fun, very personal communication. I often include favorite quotes in the cards I send that might be references to things we’re experiencing as a group. The responses I have received have been very positive. While written communication is not nearly the same as speaking with someone in person, I think sometimes it’s more meaningful. I try to express how grateful I am for each member of my team and to provide a little encouragement as well.

Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive

I think it can be helpful to write about feelings, especially feelings of sadness, frustration or hurt. Journaling is proven to be a cathartic activity that can help people process their feelings and reflect on past experiences, which can be very elucidative. One of the things I started doing a few months ago, was writing in a gratitude journal I originally purchased to give to one of my children for Christmas. Upon reading some of its contents, I decided I needed it much more than my daughter and I gifted it to myself. One of the suggested ways of practicing gratitude I found in the journal is writing a gratitude list. The simple act of making a written list of all I am grateful for helps me recalibrate when I am feeling stressed or anxious or angry. It’s a practice I now do regularly — sometimes very deliberately and other times more absentmindedly.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?


Touker Suleyman’s Instagram Feed

Dr. Elvis Francois’s Instagram Feed

Stay.Positive.In.Life Feed


Gratitude Company LinkedIn profile


Ambition, Leading with Gratitude, Seth Buechley

The Practice of Finding, Holly Whitcomb

Gratitude Journal, by Chronicle Books

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would amplify the notion that kindness in the workplace is essential to making vulnerability acceptable. I believe demonstrating real vulnerability is not reflective of weakness. I believe it demonstrates strength of character. If more people felt they could truly share the way they feel at work without repercussions or judgement, I think people would be healthier mentally and physically, and that work would become less of a necessary evil and more of an avocation for more people. I am not suggesting we make work a substitute for therapy. I just think there is a lot more room for the workplace to be a kinder, more empathic place for everyone.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?


Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Kendra Davenport of Operation Smile: How We Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.