A Bake Sale for Civilization

I have a confession to make: for years I have told readers that I work for a hard-charging and stress-making marketing organization. And this was true.  But what is also true is that I worked for a university: in its fundraising arm.  The point is that sales is sales, whether the product is a vacation condo in Tahoe or the warm, fuzzy feeling that you get from donating to a good cause.  The principles are the same, and so are the tactics and techniques. 

And now that I’ve left that job, I am posting an article here that I previously posted elsewhere under another name. My employers might not have liked it.  Some of you have read it.  Now the rest of you can.  Also, new haiku over at my Police Blotter Haiku blog. Enjoy.

By strange ways, my wife and I found ourselves at the dedication ceremony for a unique piece of public art. Amidst a varied group of spectators, we admired an abstract sculpture made entirely of plastic bottle caps. You can give it a good spin and watch it revolve, if you’re gentle with it.

Lest you grumble about how your tax dollars are spent, let me assure you: none of them were.  That was the point.  There were no tax dollars left to spend.  That’s how you get, in America these days, sculptures made of plastic bottle caps in the public parks. Made by school children, at that.

And what kind of park does this sculpture sit in?  A new one: landscaped with dead grass and bare gray dirt. Here and there you will find park benches that were made from old cargo pallets, and look it. You will find a dirt trail or two, cut through the sod, and a corral for dogs to run in.  You will even find a bicycle obstacle course made of piles of dirt.

What you will not find are paved trails, flowers and plantings, trash cans (not that I could find), sports fields, graded land, park employees, or much parking. This is what happens when the money runs out. And people still want a park.

We were in Live Oak, which is not quite a city but resembles one from a distance, like a mirage.  The county has jurisdiction over what was once a semi-rural neighborhood of scattered housing tracts, truck farms, begonia nurseries, trailer parks, and old houses landscaped with derelict cars.

But Live Oak changed; new homes replaced the large lots and nurseries; the derelict cars were sold on craigslist.  And the county put in storm drains and sidewalks, widened roads, and even built a park or six.  They were trying for seven when the money ran out.   An impoverished state government shut off their revenue stream forever.

So the county had the land, but no money left to improve it. The land might have been sold off; but then the park’s neighbors, organized by one of those tireless women who are the heroes of neighborhood action groups everywhere, offered to step in and take charge of it themselves.

So they did. This day’s dedication ceremony was the kick-off of a community work session; the neighbors would soon be spreading wood chips and gravel and hacking and chopping at a variety of organic and inorganic substances.

But before the work began, John Leopold, the county supervisor for this district, got up to address the crowd of neighbors.  He lauded their initiative.  He praised the tireless woman who’d brought them together.

Looking across the stubbly brown landscape, he said, “Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be. I don’t think that the manicured park we’d planned here would have been as true to the spirit of the land and the history of Live Oak as what you’re doing here.”

And he smiled, and we smiled back, because such shameless political bullshit has to be admired. If the money hadn’t run out, we’d all be sitting on soft, green grass that somebody else had watered and mowed.

And then all the neighbors fell to spreading wood chips and other sundry tasks.  Even the county supervisor did a  good long shift with a shovel and a  pile of wood chips. And there was a buffet of packaged food, and activities for the kiddies.  Which is where my wife and I came in.  Through a mutual acquaintance, Tireless Hero Mom had recruited my wife to provide a children’s activity while the physical labor was done.  The children would wrap trees in long, long strips of varicolored knitting.

The kiddies took to the task with all due zest, and soon children and trees and yarn were one large cat’s cradle.  Delighted mothers with smart phones snapped many pictures.

And there was talk of the non-profit organization that the neighbors would found to support the park, and how it would solicit donations to pay for what the park needed.  You have to admire a group of everyday folks for taking on something like this.  It’s inspiring, and no mistake.

But can they keep it up forever and ever? They have lives to lead and money to make and children to raise, all of them, especially Hero Mom. It’s hard to have a life these days and throw yourself into a major volunteer project that’ll last – honestly, all your life.

This sort of job is what government should do: focus the collective wealth of a nation on the well-being of its citizens.  And keep the parks running year after year, decade after decade as part of the public good, not as the personal choice of a few heroes.  If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that any system that needs heroic intervention to get its job done well, is broken.

Well-dressed people on television dispute this; they say that government has no right to take money from some for the good of all.  They tend to be the good friends of billionaires, though they will not say so.

Against them, balance the well-intentioned park neighbors are addressing the public good with no resources but their own sweat and time, used pallet wood, plastic bottle caps, a few piles of wood chips and gravel from the county, and a dream of the money that might be begged from kind strangers. While the very wealthy dodge taxes and become richer.  I think of all this, and I get sad.

I should tell you what I do for a living.

Online I often represent myself as an employee of a sales and marketing organization.  This is completely true – but misleading.  Strictly speaking, I work in the fundraising, or “development”, department of a large public university.  It will remain nameless. Anyone who knows where I live will guess its identity.  But why poke the bear?

University or non-profit fund-raising resembles any sales campaign anywhere; but there are differences.  For one, universities historically sell intangible products. For your money to a scholarship or academic program, you receive satisfaction; a sense of self-worth; the warm glow of helping others who you identify with.

And then there is the ego-stroking, especially for big donors. A big donation that gets your name over the door of a new laboratory? And invitations to intimate dinners with the university president? That’s not just about altruism.  Most big donors expect to be catered to; and they are.  Because though they represent fewer than ten percent of all donors, they also represent over eighty percent of donations.

Development, as opposed to sales, has its own lingo. We have development officers, not salesmen. When it comes time to get serious the DOs make the “ask,” not the pitch.  They do not approach customers, but cultivate “constituents.” And then there is the campaign: in development, a campaign is a pre-planned multi-year program to not only raise a boat-load of money for selected projects, but to polish the university’s image and ramp up annual contributions to a new, higher level.

Fifteen years ago, fundraising wasn’t central to our university’s well-being.  But fifteen years ago, the state footed most of the bill.

And almost every year for fifteen years, our state cut university funding.  Other states did, too. So tuition had  to shoot through the roof.  Classes had to be dropped; whole programs and degrees, too, and academic and support staff.  Students struggle to pay their tuition or get all the classes they need. Some fail. Funding has improved a bit lately, but not much.  And tuition remains too high. We the university are not what we once were.

There’s not enough money to keep all the promises government has made to its citizens; this has been coming for 30 years, since the era of St. Reagan and before. The politicians tell us that raising taxes is bad, but cutting taxes is good.  Letting the wealthy keep all their money is good for us all – in some unexplained way.

And so the schools fundraise to plug what gaps they can.  You would be amazed at what my department does to raise cash and how many months and years of effort we’ll put in for one big gift.   We get paid – unlike Hero Mom – but it’s a near-heroic journey into unknown worlds of fund-raising. We work our butts off to help the school get what the state can no longer give it. We’ll try anything once.  And if it works once – again and again and again.

Data from dozens of sources flows into our computers, which slice and dice it all into into lists: lists of donors; lists of donors by estimated giving capacity; prospective parent donors; donors by estimated assets, by calculated propensity to give annual gifts or major gifts or even to remember us in their will.

Keen-eyed development officers follow the hottest leads wherever the data takes them; to the seaside estates of the wealthy, to the high hills of San Francisco, to Silicon Valley watering holes,  to Tinseltown, to the neo-colonial halls of DC and Boston, and increasingly even to Wall Street itself.

Our servers erupt daily with e-mail “blasts” to smaller donors, non-donors who might become small donors, steady donors who might become large donors.  We even solicit students for small gifts, to inculcate in them “the habit of giving.”

Our phone banks operate most of the year, manned by likable students who’ll call you around dinner hour to discuss the glories of dear old University and solicit, if you would be so kind, a $200 donation. No? What about $150? $100? They’ll take $25 if that’s all they can get because if you give once  – you might give again.

Should a public university do this? Yes – if it want to survive.  The administration is bluntly honest on the matter: as government support diminishes, we must find our money where we can, and accept the priorities of those who give it to us.  This involves chasing donors across the landscape, sure, but also making ourselves valuable to corporations and other powerful folk with money to give us.

Our liberal arts programs and social science research may not get a lot of government or corporate grants, but our burgeoning computer science and biotechnology departments certainly do.  And these days, they’re what we chiefly publicize.

And as the needs of society accumulate – but money does not – every small non-profit group around here is emulating us.  Everyone’s starting their own tiny campaigns.  Talk of “asks” and development and  planned giving floats through conversations at  churches, volunteer organizations, social service providers, community centers, even neighborhood groups like the folks who are building their own park.

Call it a Bake Sale for Civilization.  The rich get to keep all their money now.  So we have to hold things together without them.

Only, we can’t.  If you’ve ever given a dime to charity, you’re now under bombardment from multiple worthy organizations asking you to give, give give. And more of them every day, trying harder and harder.

I am no development officer, though I work with them daily. But I keep my ear to the ground; and in spite all our furious blasting and asking and prospecting, I’m hearing concern, in low tones, that we might be over-grazing our donor base. Is donor fatigue setting in? Have we asked too much, too often, from too many? Nobody knows.  But some worry.

And they ought to. You can’t run a civilization on donations alone; society’s spare change can only do so much. The mass of us are not growing richer; eventually the coin jar by the door will empty completely.

Of course the rich can give, and do. And we ask them more and more often. And why not? To many of them, a million dollar donation hurts far less than a thousand-dollar donation would hurt to you.

But he who pays the piper, picks the tune.  Gifts from the wealthy and grants from corporations reflect their own values and self-interest, not those that are necessarily best for the nation, or most acutely needed.

Our superstar donors, the ones that the president hob-knobs with, include real estate speculators; hedge fund and private equity managers; venture capitalists; and topflight attorneys who defend corporations in court against other companies, the government, and even you.

In the world as it is today, these are the people with money.  Do you want them setting the agenda for higher education?  Because increasingly, they do.  As individuals yes; and also as corporations who throw grant money at the departments they like and the research that they think will make them money, down the road.  They’ve always done this; but now we really need their money badly.  And they know it.

My knee-jerk reaction to life is pessimistic. It’s an emotional predisposition, if supported by the facts more often than not.  Yet it may well be that Hero Mom and her crew will whip that park into shape, plant organic gardens, build facilities for kids and grown-ups alike and found a non-profit which maintains their patch of common ground both well and eternally.  I really hope they do it. I should have faith in them.

But the odds against are tall.  Even if they succeed with their park, there are not enough heroes to go around for all the other things that need doing, and that government should be doing.  Most people struggle just to make it through the week and keep the wolf from the door.  And every week, some of them fail.

This can’t go on.  One way or another, it won’t.  Either America collapses into a third-world country of widespread poverty and small islands of affluence, or the people come to understand what’s happening to them and take back the governance of the nation. Either way, it’s going to be rough.

I have intelligent older friends who know all this – but can’t bear to dwell on it.  They’re comfortable as they are with their pensions and investments and home equity, and just want things to hold together until they die.

And when the little envelopes from the charities arrive, they stuff them with small checks and send them back and hope it’s enough.

It’s not. And it’s never going to be again.


5 thoughts on “A Bake Sale for Civilization

  1. azurite

    There’s a small city park in my neighborhood. 1/2 of the park area has trees around a grassy area that used to have several stone tables/w/seats, all but one removed now and a playground, the other 1/2 is a dog park. In the grassy/treed area, there used to be 2 benches overlooking the playground, 1 was burnt, never replaced. The playground itself–the barkchipped area remains but the playground structures–they’re gone. Attached to one of the (rotting at the bottom) wooden round columns supporting a conical roof over a small covered picnic area, is a sign stating that the playground structures were removed because they’d rusted and were no longer safe. Donations are being accepted for replacements.

    However, the city council members of this very small (10,000-12,000 full year residents) have no problem spending several hundred thousand dollars every year to subsidize the small municipal airport. No doubt at least partly because several of the city council members keep their small planes there. There have been two heavily subsidized (state transportation grants) trials (of close to two years for the most recent effort) of a commercial flight, both failed.

    But the city “can’t afford” to replace a bench, to replace the playground structures in a small playground, or even to maintain a covered picnic area.

    One of the fence lines of the dog park was gradually deteriorating last year–it was obvious that if those sections of the chain link fence weren’t repaired soon, the entire fence line would be ruined (and considerably more expensive to repair or would need to be replaced). I complained a number of times to a variety of people, I think I upset the head of city parks who called me to “see if I’d gotten a response” by telling him just how unimpressed I was by the “response” I’d gotten (which was, we’ll get around to fixing it when we can). Eventually the fence was repaired (I don’t know how many other people might’ve complained too–it’s a well used dog park).

    One of the pilots who used to keep a small plane at the airport not only lost his flight certificates, but was successfully prosecuted in state court for reckless endangerment &, I think, trespass. He used to buzz one woman’s house (some years ago he’d buzzed the house of a friend of mine until she threatened to shoot his plane if he ever did it again) and flying so low over the beach–that had many people on it–that a visiting wildlife photographer took a photo showing him flying between two people on the beach. The former airport manager testified that what this man had done wasn’t really a problem–because at the weekly barbecues at the airport, many of the private pilots had bragged about buzzing people on the beach, on boats, and how all those people “enjoyed it”.

    That pilot was only one of several who either lost their flight certificates or were otherwise grounded due to various violations of FAA regs–including flying illegally low over populated areas.

    Doesn’t matter, it’s still much more important to the city council to spend public money on the airport, rather then on a playground. It’s ok for the kids to have to rely on donations but not the airport.

  2. Forrest Seale

    Sure – close the airport. Not all that many in the community use it. Then close the public swimming pool. Only a small percentage of the community use that. And, close the golf course – same reason. Oh yeah, let’s get rid of the tennis courts, benches in the parks, busses, light rail….Hell why should our communities have ANY common assets?

    1. azurite

      I don’t know how, but you’ve missed the point of my post–which was that I don’t like that the city’s priority is to let a neighborhood park fall into ruin while subsidizing an airport that many fewer people use. Given the city’s past patterns, it’s likely the city will let the park fall into disrepair and keep removing, rather then replacing, whatever needs repair or replacement, and then close the park and sell the land to a “developer.”

      As for the city pool, it also needs to be replaced and it took two tries for a property tax levy to support construction of a new pool. I voted for it each time–because the high school has a good swim team (female & male) and people of all ages can take swimming lessons at the pool.

      I was in favor of this proposed pool–which will be attached to an existing municipal recreation center (which I also supported construction of) and so be located in the center of town. What some people wanted (& I opposed) was a much larger & much more expensive “aquatic center” built at the other end of town (you’d have to cross an aging 2 lane bridge to reach it) away from where a majority of the town’s population lives. Its main purpose was a tourist attraction. Its supporters claimed they had raised enough money to construct it–but they wanted the city (i.e., anyone who lives in the city) to subsidize its maintenance and repair. I opposed the aquatic center because (1) it would be harder for most people in town to reach the “aquatic center” and it was very likely that pool membership, etc., would cost more. It’s a small town w/a fairly low median income, towns that have ‘aquatic centers’ of that size tend to have about 4 times the population and a significantly higher median income. (2) more people will be able to walk or bicycle to the new pool, just as they can walk/bicycle to the old pool. The old pool is close to an elementary school and about 5-6 blocks from a high school & middle school (w/sidewalks available for most of the walks). The new pool will also be not quite as accessible by foot/bicycle and close to schools/residential areas, but about 3 miles closer then the proposed “aquatic center” location.

      I’ve long supported the local public library and performing arts center as well.

      I’m in favor of spending tax dollars on community facilities that I believe benefit the entire community, not just a small number. There’s a concentration of multi-family residences near the neighborhood park the city is neglecting. I’d like to see the children in the area have a place to play (the apartment buildings don’t provide any) –and that’s why I’m unable about the city asking for donations to pay for replacement playground structures while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars subsidizing the municipal airport-which maybe 20 people use. Ditto for the dog park that is also part of the neighborhood park–people living nearby can let their dogs run & play there if they don’t have outdoor space of their own.

      Rather then not wanting the town to spend money on ANY community facility, I like to see different spending PRIORITIES.

      As another example, the city decided the visual arts center, which has two small galleries, and provides a location for low cost watercolor, live drawing, oil painting classes, should become more self-supporting (i.e., the city doesn’t want to provide any funding anymore) but- there’s no similar discussion regarding requiring the airport to become even close to paying for itself.
      I’ve spent much more time at the visual arts center (sometimes looking at the exhibits, also taking a few classes or attending meetings of organizations that rent a room from the VAC) then I have at the airport. So I’m biased, I think the VAC is a far better use of city funding then the airport–it serves far many more people–locals, visiting artists, tourists.

  3. Blissex

    «Either America collapses into a third-world country of widespread poverty and small islands of affluence, or the people come to understand what’s happening to them and take back the governance of the nation»

    Most of the people *who vote* think they will be winners and end up in the small islands of affluenmce, and that the losers deserve to end up in the third-world country.

    They have enthusiastically bought into the “plantation” model of the economy, with the few winners in the beautiful palaces on top of the sunny uplands and the many losers laboring in the swamps below.

    «Either way, it’s going to be rough. I have intelligent older friends who know all this – but can’t bear to dwell on it. They’re comfortable as they are with their pensions and investments and home equity, and just want things to hold together until they die.»

    Some or many of them think that they live in some small island of affluence, and in the secret of the ballot box they vote for whoever promises higher home prices and higher stock prices, and lower taxes for them; their motto is “F*ck you! I am fully vested”.

    Grover Norquist described the strategy and situation well:

    «And that is, in 2002, on the investor class stuff … you could have said, just drop $7 trillion in stock market value with the collapse of the bubble … $7 trillion, trillions with a T … Americans had $7 trillion less than they used to have, you can expect them to be very irritated and in trouble. [ … ]
    They were mad at having lower stock prices and 401(k)s, but they didn’t say Bush did this and that caused this. Secondly, the Democratic solution was to sic the trial lawyers on Enron and finish it off. No no no no no.
    We want our market caps to go back up, not low. The 1930s rhetoric was bash business — only a handful of bankers thought that meant them.
    Now if you say we’re going to smash the big corporations, 60-plus percent of voters say “That’s my retirement you’re messing with. I don’t appreciate that”. And the Democrats have spent 50 years explaining that Republicans will
    pollute the earth and kill baby seals to get market caps higher.
    And in 2002, voters said, “We’re sorry about the seals and everything but we really got to get the stock market up.»

    1. admin Post author

      Nice to hear from you, Blissex: I do understand. Just as a comment, let me excerpt a comment that was left on this post when it originally appeared (somewhere else):

      “One of the diarists last paragraphs really got me to thinking:

      “They’re comfortable as they are with their pensions and investments and home equity, and just want things to hold together until they die.”

      Man, that’s where I was 10 years ago. And then the wheels came off. That “comfort” disappeared in a relative instant. More and more people, even in the middle and upper classes, recognize the potential for being one moment from personal (or corporate) catastrophe. And so, we’ve conditioned to hold tight to whatever belongs to us, even when we drive by the park and it’s an overgrown mess.

      It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.”


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