A few years ago, I visited my daughter’s fifth grade class to present on “What Do I Want to be When I Grow Up” day. Oh god, I thought the night before. How am I going to make the job of professional fundraiser aka “asker for money” exciting?
But I found a way.
After telling the students about the basics, I wrote four charities on the white board: A homeless shelter, a youth program, a new library, and a hospital. I divided the students into groups of 5, and with some facsimile “checks” ranging from $10,000 to $1,000,000, I instantly made each group “wealthy.”
One requirement: “You have to invest your money in one of the four charities AND you have to tell me why it is the smartest investment for the amount of money you have.” And I asked that a spokesperson from each group serve as the fundraiser, making a pitch for why their selected charity deserved their largesse.
How thrilling to share a room with 25 bright and engaged venture philanthropists. They were savvy, passionate, and persuasive about their choices. They reinvigorated my commitment for raising money for programs that truly have tremendous social impact. They affirmed my choice to remain a development officer at UMass Boston, a place where such programs bloom as prolifically as the summer flowers adorning our ocean-side campus.
Driving to work today, somehow that presentation at the Brackett School in Arlington wafted back into my consciousness. But this time I found myself imagining I was the rich one. What would I do with my money if I could become a generous philanthropist? What UMass program would I support if I could write the check (a real one this time) today?
“This time I found myself imagining I was the rich one.”
When you pull off 93 South onto the Columbia Road exit you are greeted to your left by a series of pan handlers, beggars, there’s really no good word for them because they are so desperate. Their Sharpie marked cardboard signs say so much. “Veteran with family to feed,” “Homeless, will work for pay,” and other messages which change given the vicissitudes of the economy or weather or other factors we cannot even comprehend.
We all drive by these guys (or women) from time to time. And they never fail to remind us of our humanity as our stomachs grow tight and our angst rises. With nervousness or embarrassment or compassion we either look away, while, say, sipping a Starbucks, or reach into our brief cases to find a buck or two to give them. There is no one right way to respond. Whether we do or do not donate, we are ambivalent.
Where would I invest my money? I would make the largest gift possible to UMass Boston’s Center for Social Policy. Because for the last two decades, the Center for Social Policy has applied people-centered research to honing the tools to fight poverty and its consequences in Boston, the Commonwealth, and beyond.
Bridging the worlds of research, policy, and practice, the center has collaborated with community members, non-profit organizations, government agencies and UMass Boston institutional partners to shape and reshape policies that address the root causes of economic hardship and social exclusion. They are making it so that the Columbia Road pan handlers may some day no longer exist.
What is most remarkable to me, and the distinctive competence of this center’s work, is that it has intentionally used a bottom up approach to engage with the many parties whose potential is limited by the burdens of poverty. They’ve widened the circle of response in addressing the vexing complexities of alleviating the conditions of poverty by including the poor themselves. People like the guys who greet me day in and out on my commute.
I’d make an endowment gift to the Center for Social Policy’s research so that their approach, which has realized the human potential of many over two decades, will continue to be a bold force in poverty alleviation in perpetuity. My gift would not be followed with the anxiety I always feel around supporting the homeless on the street. I know that my gift will make a dynamic contribution to addressing the root causes of poverty. Because of it, there will be fewer poor people tomorrow.
On October 17th the Center for Social Policy will celebrate its anniversary at Honoring Leaders in Economic and Social Justice, a special event to honor the advocacy, policy research, philanthropy, and progressive leadership of courageous visionaries—past and present—who are finding solutions to ending economic disparity and serving as the soul of our body politic.
Barney Frank will receive the Chancellor’s Award for Exemplary Service. The event will also salute a rising generation of leadership who are using creativity, strategy, and generosity to inspire social prosperity for all. If you join us on this special evening you will understand first hand about what I have written here.
The Center is seeking sponsorships for this event. I will give what I can to extend their remarkable work. I hope you will too.
Nan Cormier, M.A. is director of advancement communications.