I just got a fundraising letter from Sam and Will’s school, and I was so pleased to see that they have decided to express their gratitude for what we gave last year by suggesting that we give twice as much this time. I have no doubt that this all too common tactic has been designed in consultation with various high priced charitable donation consultants whose careful studies of the human psyche (or at least the charitable donor psyche) reveal how successfully it works to pry ever more cash from one’s never quite generous enough supporters. And yet I cannot help feeling a little used.
I understand that the school needs to raise money, and I do not begrudge it that. Well, mostly not. I cannot help wondering if it would have to raise a lot less if it spent a lot less on administration, which now uses up as much of the budget as instruction. It has spent the past couple of decades adding to the administrative ranks, with the result that a school of around 350 students (a number that has not gone up much) now has 4 employees in the college counseling office, , 2 assistants to the Head of School, 13 people in the admissions office, 3 people in the dean of students office, 8 in the athletics office (that does not include any coaches), and 12 in the development office. Not that this school particularly deserves to be singled out for this. All of the academic institutions that hit me up for handouts have done the same thing. Academic administration is surely one of the nation’s major growth industries, though I am still not quite certain what this industry produces.
One things it might produce at my sons’ school is a fundraising letter that treats me more like an actual person and less like a revenue source with exploitable psychological weaknesses. The decision to ask for twice as much money does not stem from anything we suggested about future gifts or
some obvious positive change in our financial situation (though the school is well aware that with both boys there our tuition bill has doubled). It is just a marketing ploy, a way to exert pressure on us, to make us feel that we are obliged to meet their expectations, that a failure to give what they ask would be rude and expose us as cheapskates, and to make us feel perhaps a little flattered that they take us for rich people. I would have thought a well phrased expression of gratitude for past gifts and humble, compelling request for further beneficence of our choosing was called for. But no doubt the more aggressive approach yields greater returns.
Or maybe we have just come to view all but the most intimate personal relationships as commercial opportunities, chances to wield our marketing skills against one another. If we are most essentially consumers in the all encompassing free market then turning every interaction into a sales pitch is perfectly reasonable. It is what makes America work.
Which is why we are pretty well under continuous commercial assault, even from the people to whom we voluntarily offer charitable donations. In fact, the school’s letter is a fairly discreet, mild version of the high pressure pitch. These days to support a worthy cause is to call down on oneself an unrelenting barrage of often aggressive, sometimes sleazy demands for more and more money. I recognize the great need and good purpose of these groups. If I did not I would not have given in the first place. But great need and good purpose do not excuse treating me like an easily bullied ATM.
What actually excuses this behavior, of course, is that it works. At least, that is what we tell ourselves. We treat making money as our central purpose, our most important talent, the true expression of our individuality, the locus of our precious freedom, and measure success in dollars. Thus we have come to view government as an entity quite apart from us, dedicated solely to its own well being and bent on enslaving us with its unfair power of taxation. Liberty and justice exist in opposition to government, and claims of social cooperation for the general good are merely fancy sounding cover stories for unprincipled self-interest–which you would think we would appreciate since we seem to admire that very quality in business.
The fundraising letter from my sons’ school is far from the worst expression of this cultural point of view. Indeed, it is almost laughably benign. Carping about it while we mull discarding basic care and decency in order to offer the richest among us short term savings seems silly. But when we have gotten to the point that a school dedicated to creating a caring community of independent thinkers and with more than adequate resources to treat me as a person chooses to deal with me as at least in some measure as a set of set marketing-susceptible traits to be exploited for cash, we have gotten to a very low point.
Which is all an odd and probably ineffective introduction to my effort to sell you something. But that is fitting since I am an odd and ineffective seller. If I thought it would work, I would let my vegetables sell themselves, which is not that far off from what I actually do. I certainly hope that the quality, variety and quantity of produce you have received from our farm makes a compelling case all by itself for being a member of our CSA. I also hope that you place some real value on getting local food–because doing so means you get fresher food, have a direct knowledge of the source of your food, help the local economy, support open space and sustainable land use in the region or for some other reason of your choosing. And I would even like to believe that you might take some satisfaction in dealing with a business that simply does what it says, actually produces something tangible, and offers its products as they are, unamended by petrochemical fertilizers, highly engineered processing or cleverly crafted marketing.
On the off chance, however, that all of that is not enough, and because the vegetables are lousy typists, I must step in and do a little something to promote the CSA. While I am not going to provide an irresistible jingle, cool tagline, self-mocking spokesperson, bikini-clad model or gravel voiced appeal to your patriotism, I am authorized to offer the following deal: send me a $150 deposit by the end of November and you can get a 2013 CSA share at this year’s extra early discount price of $435. It is my small way of thanking you for supporting the farm, which I hope you will continue to do because it seems worthwhile and tasty. I will send out a sign up form, but you can just send me the deposit and any relevant change in your contact information (if any) if you don’t want to bother with forms.