I have a love/hate relationship with fundraising. No wait, let’s face it, I actually hate fundraising. But there are lots of people who are brilliant at it and thank God they are. Without them many worthy causes would not have sufficient funds to conduct research, or develop and deliver valuable services and programs.
I worked for years in an organization that received many requests each day to support a wide variety of causes. Each applicant carefully tailored their request to show why their work would benefit our organizational goals and were deserving of our financial support. I was charged with making recommendations on our allocations. Most causes were worthy and I hated to turn anyone away completely. Decisions revolved primarily around how to divide a finite amount of money among an ever growing group of applicants, keeping not only the applicants who were our allies happy but also keeping my superiors happy as they had preferences among the applicants. Diplomacy combined with ruthlessness in appropriate measures was essential to divide the pie successfully. And success often meant you pleased no one, irrespective of the size of the pie. I never felt entirely comfortable in this role.
Now I am on the other side of the equation, asking friends, relatives, former work colleagues, neighbours, Twitter buddies, and complete strangers to support a cause about which I have become passionate – Parkinson’s disease. You see, I have PD. There is no cure. It is a degenerative neurological disease which, in all likelihood, will get worse over the course of my lifetime and ultimately will render me incapable of independent movement and decision-making. Nevertheless, my request for assistance is not made for narrow personal gain. Rather, it is a plea to support a multi-faceted approach focusing on cause, cure and care. We must find the cause of Parkinson’s in order to prevent future cases; we must find a cure for those already afflicted; and we must advocate for and establish conditions for care so that Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP), their families and caregivers can survive the many challenges of this debilitating disease. No one should face a future of Parkinson’s disease without organizational support and resources.
I am certain that there are many reasons why people give money to favourite charities and organizations. Undoubtedly understanding philanthropy and the use of various techniques, strategies and technologies to increase giving is a science. And we employ professional fundraisers to maximize our return on investment such that good works can be accomplished effectively and efficiently. The world of fundraising and charitable work is filled with noble causes populated with good souls of enormous talent and skill who guide organizations to ever greater heights with each passing year. And yet the need is ever greater with each passing year. At this point, a pessimist would just pull the blanket up over her/his head in an attempt to shut out both light and sound. An optimist would (and should) revel in the advances made in each passing year. While we have not found a cure for Parkinson’s, no one can say that we have not made significant advances which make living with Parkinson’s more tolerable for PwP and their families/caregivers. Yes, I know that these advances are not enough and there is still great suffering for those afflicted.
I suspect that charitable organizations in small communities are reliant upon (or are part of) local faith and not-for-profit philanthropic organizations primarily supported by good, solid upstanding citizens who can rightly be called philanthropists and give generously from their own good fortune to those more in need. Who gives and why they give is undoubtedly one of the most important questions addressed by those who study philanthropy.
As always, I am not an expert in what I am about to say and the usual caveats apply. But I shall forge ahead, sometimes careening from one idea to another much like a Parkie bouncing off walls while walking through a narrow hallway when the meds have worn off. While I may not proceed with style, grace, alacrity, or certainty of direction, rest assured that I proceed with great purpose. Consider the following:
Fundraising in small towns in the 1950s took many forms. Charitable works were carried out in several ways: by faith groups (called “churches” in those days) and their respective auxiliaries; by not-for-profit organizations who held meetings in secret, with secret codes of conduct, secret handshakes and greetings, but raised money very publicly to support highly visible projects; by individuals who gave selflessly and generously to worthy causes eschewing any public recognition; by families who suffered great loss in the untimely deaths of loved ones and wished to spare others a similar fate; by those who adhered to the belief that community is greater than the sum of the individuals within it and was a place of shared responsibility for its overall health and well being; and by those who learned that love is a powerful motivator converting personal tragedy into positive energy extending the force of life of their loved ones long past their deaths through charitable foundations and events.
In the small rural Manitoba town where I grew up, entertainment was where you found it. I often tell my children that the only toy I ever had was a stick with a nail in it. This is closer to the truth than I usually care to admit. In the days before HBO and Netflix, entertainment sometimes found us when small troupes of singers, magicians and storytellers with pet skunks would pass through, booking the local hall for an evening before moving on to the next lucky town – spiriting out as many precious dollars as they could from the community before anyone asked for their money back, leaving behind only detritus for the hall caretaker to clear away.
But sometimes community-minded organizations, churches, and local businesses would coordinate to host a talent show – a loosely formed excuse to raise money for charity and showcase local talent. The night’s lineup could include the likes of: poets and poetry readers, tap dancers, folk singers, country and western groups, the wanna be rock band making its first appearance outside of an old barn, the local choir, a humorous skit about an operating room performed behind a curtain in silhouette à la Groucho Marx, and an emcee with a suitable patter of corny but clean jokes and enough brainpower to engage in witty repartee with the hecklers in the audience. The winners were selected by a panel of three individuals representing, somehow simultaneously, both the diversity and the commonality of the community. In other words, no one could complain about the results … and, at the same time, everyone could complain about the results if they wanted to do so. Few ever did. Small monetary awards signified success for the top three acts. The show relied on voluntary labour and donated goods, and, after a few small expenses, the proceeds went to local charities, and the good will stayed within the community.
When I was about 10 years old, I recall being given a whole dollar to attend one such show – many story tellers would say “a crisp new dollar bill”, but mine was neither crisp nor new. It was decidedly limp, worn, and slightly torn with illegible writing on one side. This dollar had not lingered long in any one pocket and it was not to linger long in mine. The Canadian loonie was far off in the distant future and this particular rag dollar was to retain a visage more akin to a rag than something shiny and collectable. My dollar was to pay for my entry and treats for the evening. The cost of admission was pegged at whatever people felt comfortable to give, knowing proceeds were being distributed to charity. The dollar bill was all I had, and the most I had ever had in my own pocket at one time. Filled with anticipation and excitement, I went to the community hall. This shy redheaded boy hesitantly approached the door and opened it slowly to peer inside. It was not yet dark outside and I could only make out dark shapes as my pupils struggled to adjust and process the information to spur my forward advance.
OMG! Well, this acronym wasn’t in use in 1959, but I think I thought something equivalent to that as my eyes landed on the person who was selling tickets at the table just inside. It was Miss Myrna! – the teenage daughter of the school principal, and she was, from my recollection, very beautiful and extremely intimidating, rendering me incapable of both speech and rational thought. Miss Myrna, gorgeous senior in high school and me, grade 5 introvert – hardly a fair match in any interaction.
I edged forward, aided by a push from someone behind who was annoyed at my reticence to enter. I slowly proffered my ratty dollar bill. Miss Myrna took the bill gingerly between thumb and forefinger and asked how much I would like to pay for my entry fee. Little did I know that I would parallel Stephen Leacock’s classic story of My Financial Career when I stumbled over my words and muttered, almost beneath my breath, “one dollar”. Miss Myrna smiled at me oh so sweetly and the dollar bill was now being caressed in her hands with a newly found fondness – or at least I thought so. She asked, “Are you sure? That is an awful lot of money.” Whatever neurons were firing in my brain at that moment were not sufficient to overturn the previous decision. Dry mouthed, I nodded. The decision was now confirmed – my full and only dollar was committed to go to charity and my evening was to be celebrated without any treats from the concession. But I did feel good – good that I sacrificed as much as I was able to sacrifice for those who needed the dollar more than I did. My consolation was that maybe, just maybe, Miss Myrna would judge me as a worthwhile soul and not an irritating, stinky, grade 5 toad.
In truth, I do not know what Miss Myrna thought about those few moments of interaction, if she thought about them at all. My own recollection is that she did smile at me sweetly if not approvingly, or maybe it was approvingly if not sweetly – it is hard for a ten year old to tell the difference – several times during the evening as the talent performed. Two old time fiddlers – one of French Canadian heritage and one of Irish Ottawa Valley background – fought it out for first and second places with a series of jigs, reels, waltzes and a schottische thrown in for good measure. Each was brought back for an encore presentation and they wrapped it up with a friendly fiddle duet. The crowd lapped it up. Third place went to two young highland lassies deftly performing a sword dance, much to the irritation of the youngsters in the crowd who cheered raucously for the newly formed rock and roll barn band. Older folks in the audience were quite disgusted by this youthful, rebellious exuberance.
Over the coming days, I basked in the memory of Miss Myrna’s warm smile and reflected upon the complexities of charitable giving. I sometimes still do. Did I only donate that dollar because I was a young tadpole incapable of any meaningful interaction with a member of the opposite sex; because I was under the spell of a beautiful older woman; because I knew deep within my value system that the dollar was far better off in the treasury of the charity than in my own pocket where it would soon be converted into candy with limited use as currency; or because all humans are born with some notion of altruism which can be nurtured and directed towards enhancing the greater good of any community. Perhaps, it need not matter. The important point was that the dollar was given and this transaction was worthy of the needs of all concerned.
In today’s world, should we give to anyone who comes knocking on our door, calling our phone, or contacting us via the internet? When we give, are we all just tricked by pretty voices, pretty faces, sad stories, bad choices, hopeful prayers, slick players, and fancy lines for fundraising times? Of course not. Giving, done freely within one’s means, without expectation of immediate selfish return, often carries the potential to accomplish more than intended, unbeknownst to either the giver or recipient.
When Anne and I announced our intention to marry and issued invitations to our wedding (the second marriage for each of us) there were discussions about wedding gifts and whether we should accept any at all. Neither of us had any need for traditional wedding gifts involving household goods, and we certainly did not need money. We also knew that most of our friends and relatives would not be comfortable in attending without some form of gift. That is just the way they are. We thought about donations to charities but discounted it as being too impersonal for most even if it would be the most altruistic. Sorry to disappoint, but altruism does not always win out – in the short term at least.
To make a long story short, we decided that for those who felt compelled to bring a gift, a small gift certificate to a local garden centre or nursery would suffice. Many guests did avail themselves of that option and various “‘gardens’ within the garden” began to unfold. The photo below is one perspective on this garden which has brought great joy to our lives over the past 18 years, and will continue to do so for many more. One of our children opted to be married against this backdrop five years ago. All of our children and our closest friends understand how much this garden means to our overall health and well being – particularly mine as I make my way through life with Parkinson’s. Anne revels in the sheer riotous and often ridiculous madness of the colours, and the unpredictable yet ultimately perfectly chosen juxtaposition of colour and form upon which Mother Nature has deemed it suitable to place her signature. The garden is my classroom – for matters agricultural, horticultural, political, sociological, philosophical, and spiritual. The lessons, not always immediately apparent, do reveal themselves ultimately with enough tactile and cerebral prodding. It is a classroom whose doors never close.
These few gifts given to us on our wedding day have blossomed into a profusion of colours, shapes, scents [even if the Parkie doesn't smell them so well any more] and memories which nurture and guide our souls through the rhythms and “stuff of life” as my father would say. Giving is most often like that. It has benefits far beyond any human capacity to calculate the permutations.
So, did Miss Myrna unfairly take advantage of a young lad who stayed pretty much a ” country bumpkin” most of his life? I think not. The lad, even at such a young age, wanted to impress – not always a good quality but not the worst by any stretch. There was no firm expectation of quid pro quo on either side. The money was given and received in good faith, and put towards good charitable works by the local faith groups. The lad discovered that basic human interactions often contain lessons for later, and greater, life decisions.
Since I began writing The PD Gardener Blog about one year ago, it has received over 1,200 views in 32 different countries. No matter where you live, I ask that you exercise the altruistic tendency of basic human nature (even if it may be tinged a little bit by a desire to impress) and support Parkinson’s SuperWalk 2014 by clicking on the link below to donate and/or join my team, The PD Gardener.
Help sow seeds in the many gardens that must flourish in order to subdue Parkinson’s and to support research, advocacy, policy development, services and programs. And remember, giving, like gardening, is always worth the effort.
Stan Marshall aka The PD Gardener