Fundraising Contemplation

As I write this blog post today, we’ve had our WRSC GoFundMe fundraiser out for 5 days, 11 people have contributed, and we’ve raised over $1,000 of our $5,000 goal. This is thrilling for me, and has had me thinking about the act of fundraising as an important but daunting expression of civil society.

I think all of us have experienced the good feeling we get from giving. We don’t often talk about it – we don’t want to boast – but we know the feeling: warm, happy, lighter, freer. The other day I was driving to work and there was a traffic director guiding cars around the café I had planned to stop at to pick up lunch for later. I asked the traffic director whether I could get to the café via the route he was directing me. “Only if you bring me back a cinnamon roll!” he winked. So I immediately knew I would do so, and when I did, I treasured the surprise and smile on his face. Even if he didn’t really want the cinnamon roll, he could give it to a friend, and he would at least have been given the gift of knowing that there are people willing to give in our community. “Pay it forward!” I thought.

So that’s giving. But what about receiving? How many of us have asked for financial help, and how has it felt when we’ve received it? I’m not very experienced in the asking department, personally or professionally. Personally, for me there is some kind of familial and probably cultural taboo against asking for financial help. There is self-judgment (“Shouldn’t I be able to do this myself?”) and fear of judgment from others (“She doesn’t really need it…If she didn’t buy so much chocolate, she would be able to afford it herself!”). There is fear of rejection – what if no one gives what I ask for? What would that mean about my value as a person?

The first experience I had with fundraising occurred when I lived at Karme Choling, the Shambhala Buddhist retreat center in NE Vermont. I and a number of other staff members were ready to attend Vajrayana Seminary. Only problem: along with room and board and invaluable classes and exposure to amazing teachers, we had been paid maybe $30 per month for however many years we had been living there, and Seminary costs in the thousands. None of us youngsters had significant personal savings from what little worldly work we had done prior to arriving on staff. So, we decided to fundraise.

I was the baker at KCL, so for the fundraiser I baked bread in my off hours, made special labels for the wrappers, and put the loaves on a table in the main hallway with a manila envelope tacked above them that explained that we were asking for donations for Seminary. Those who worked in the garden put seedlings on the table. One staff member made T-shirts representing the five Buddha families – that was an ambitious affair by our standards, one we all anxiously chipped in on both financially and design-wise. Someone else made cards out of photographs of the children who lived at KCL at the time, and placed them on our hallway table under the manila envelope.

I remember checking that manila envelope almost hourly; I was in charge of collecting and keeping the cash (in my cubby in the women’s changing area, under my folded pants). I remember our dawning awareness that this scheme was actually working. Cash was coming in.  I remember discussions about how to divide the money – should we divide it evenly, or should those who put in more effort be given more – and what about those who had family money?

In the end, I don’t remember how we divided it.  I also don’t remember any rancor in that distributive process. I do remember that two staff members (including one who had perhaps done the most work, having spearheaded the T-shirt effort) decided that because of family money, they would forgo their share of the donations. But what I remember most of all was the incredible generosity of the people who donated.

Who were they? Most of it was given in cash, so we were not able to know, or to thank, our benefactors directly. I believe that many were sangha members who lived nearby, but also many must have been far-flung sangha members who came to KCL for retreats during that period. It simply felt like the lineage. Those who had gone before wanted us to have our chance at the Vajrayana. They trusted us, the teachings, the magic. They knew their dollars would create merit. They remembered, or imagined, their own struggle to get to Seminary. They were happy to be at KCL. I don’t know – I just know that their donations forged an unbreakable commitment in my heart, to give back when and how I can, and to stay as close as I can, to our clan.

So that has been what it’s like for me to be on the receiving end of financial giving. That was 16 years ago, and I actually haven’t done much asking since. I coordinated a silent auction fundraiser for the White River Shambhala Center a few years back, and that was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and it helped us financially.  Others before me did similar work, putting on extravagant and magnetizing fundraisers at the Center, which were likewise fun and stressful and successful. So it’s a bit daunting to now be just asking, no bells and whistles: putting up the online manila envelope and seeing what happens.

When a group of us discussed using GoFundMe, I remember saying, “We should have a goal of $500 – it’s so embarrassing to have some huge goal and accomplish just a fraction of it!” But I was outnumbered by my more sanguine colleagues. And sure enough, in just 5 days we have more than doubled what I had thought was a reasonable goal. The smile of the lineage continues.

This is all to say that both giving and receiving are unforgettable teachings for us as individuals, and are also perhaps a type of basic glue that holds us together as a society. Call it “basic gluiness.” We hold each other together, whether we know each other or not. We are stuck together, and when one of us seems to be coming loose, we respond by giving. We don’t really know how much we mean to each other, or where our allegiances lie, until we take part in the acts of giving and receiving.

Thank you, dear community members/patient readers, for staying with me through this reflection. I do hope you will look at our GoFundMe page and consider what you can give. The Center will receive with a bow.

Yours in GES Vision,

Dia Ballou
Director, WRSC