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Island Girl: The gift that keeps on taking

Yes, these are tough times, including for worthy nonprofits. But what's with the hard sell on those of us who are trying to help?

Life on an island can get lonely.

I thought I was prepared for that, but shortly after we moved in there came a day when my husband went to work and my daughter left for school and I felt like I’d slipped into an Ingmar Bergman film: Everything was pale sun and silent sky and trees waving in the wind.

I work at home, which was never a problem when we lived in the city. But now, in order not to go insane, I decided it was necessary to get myself into Seattle at least three or four days a week. Volunteerism seemed like the perfect excuse.

So I found an organization doing work I believe in — programming for youth and people with mental illness — and called their executive director.

They would love to have me volunteer as a writer, she said. But it would be even better if I would also join their board. I demurred, telling her (truthfully) that I’m not really board material. I work best alone, clutching a cup of coffee, wearing one of my husband’s old t-shirts and pair of wool socks.

The woman was persistent. All that was required were a few meetings a month, she said. I would need to join at least one committee, do a little fundraising. And of course they’d need a personal gift. Two or three thousand dollars would do.

It was all I could do not to laugh. Yes, my husband had moved out to Seattle for a very good job, I explained. But we had a home back in Minneapolis that we couldn’t sell, a 19-year-old son in college, and an adult son with autism living in a very expensive group home. We were barely keeping up. At least for now, there would be no gift. Politely — I thought — I declined her offer for a chair on the board.

But the next day, I received a note. She’d discussed it with the board president and they’d agreed that I would be an asset; my work on their materials would be considered a “gift in kind.” If I could assure them that when and if our financial circumstances changed I would donate to their organization first, they would welcome my application for the board.

I have to admit, all my internal alarms were going off. But I was freakin’ lonely. So I said fine. I submitted and stood up at the next meeting as a candidate. I was voted onto the board. And three days later, I received an email from a fellow board member telling me we needed to get a meeting on the calendar. The fall fundraising push was getting underway and he needed a financial commitment from me. Now.

It was suggested that I divide my gift into 12 easy payments. When I called the ED to see if perhaps this was an oversight — had she simply forgotten to mention our “gift in kind” arrangement? — she pointed out that I could charge my donation to a credit card and earn frequent flyer miles.

Feeling sheepish and humiliated, I declined my seat on the board immediately. Then I called up my friend Mary, the executive director of an animal humane society in the Midwest. I wanted someone to sympathize with the way I’d been treated. Instead, she listened to my story about the double-crossing ED and said, “I would have done exactly the same thing.”

The competition for financial support is so fierce right now, Mary said, that nonprofits have begun using hardcore sales techniques. Get your quarry in your space and pin them down. Give them financing options. Never take no for an answer. It is, she said, the only way to survive.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, individuals contributed 75 percent of the dollars received by charitable organizations in 2008. So while foundations and corporations are scaling back their support, we average citizens are picking up the slack. I have not named the organization I contacted because its people do good work and I have no desire to pillory them in print. They are simply responding to financial exigencies, the way all of us must.


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