Braille Monitor                                                                November 2006

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On the Art of Solicitation

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce

From Daniel Frye: As Federationists know, the 2007 NFB national convention will feature the first-ever National Federation of the Blind March for Independence, a five-kilometer public education and fundraising walk through downtown Atlanta. Early on the morning of Tuesday, July 3, 2007, eligible Federationists, who have raised at least $250 in pledges for this charitable marathon, will assemble in the lobby of our headquarters hotel, walk to an NFB rally site, and then stream back to the hotel ballroom for the start of our first general session. Further details of this event were published in the October 2006 Braille Monitor, have been discussed on Presidential Releases, and will be regularly featured in a variety of Federation-sponsored forums during the next several months.

In the interim we reprint here "From the President's Desk," published in the Fall 2006 edition of the Buckeye Bulletin, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. In it Barbara Pierce, president of our Ohio affiliate, offers useful insights on increasing our eagerness to solicit funds on behalf of the NFB. As we prepare to tackle this ambitious fundraiser, consideration of Barbara's experience and reflections on this topic seem appropriate. Get ready to do your part to help make the National Federation of the Blind March for Independence a phenomenal success. Her column follows:

From the President's Desk

I had been a member of the Federation for about a year and a half when I sat in shocked silence as our then-president and beloved leader, Kenneth Jernigan, made a short speech to a group of us that went something like this:

All of us in this organization hate to the very core of our beings the concept of the blind beggar with his tin cup and pencils. Our reaction is violent and visceral because we know full well that this image is fixed in the public mind as the ultimate representation of blindness. We are frequently intolerant of blind people who make their livings--sometimes a very good living indeed--by this shameless appeal to pity and primal fear. We know that we all pay a price every time this stereotype is reinforced by a blind person begging on the corner.
So it is a given that I hate begging and everything it stands for and that I struggle not to despise those who believe they have no choice but begging if they wish to survive. Yet I tell you that, if I could find no other way to raise the money we need to fund the programs of this organization, even feeling as I do about begging, I would take to the streets and beg to raise money to fund our work. That is how important I think this work is.

I found those words stunning and profoundly disturbing, but I have now lived with them for a number of years, and I have reflected on the truth they conveyed. They have forced me to examine my own personal reactions to the Federation's efforts at fundraising.
I have noticed that I am far more willing to sell drawing tickets or small items if the cause to which the funds are going is not connected to blindness. This tells me that, when I sell chances or small items for the NFB, I have the niggling feeling that people will presume that I somehow benefit personally from their purchases. I suspect that subconsciously, at least, I feel a bit like a beggar capitalizing on the buyer's pity for a poor blind person.

I know I am not alone in this reaction. Other blind people have told me as much when I have asked them to join me in doing such fundraising. I have gradually come to the conclusion that this reaction is misguided. I do not believe that friends and strangers see us as a sort of institutional beggar when we sell raffle tickets or Krispy Kreme doughnuts or wrapping paper. In fact I have come to suspect that the expressed fear that such sales will be misunderstood is nothing more than a way of excusing myself for not trying harder at fundraising. That is one reason why Dr. Jernigan's statement that he would be willing to engage in outright begging if he could find no other way to fund our movement is so disquieting to me.

Of course the Federation is in a new era. With the opening of the NFB Jernigan Institute, we are faced with the need to engage in fundraising on a scale that Dr. Jernigan could not have conceived of when he made his statement. But I do not believe that his view would be any different today. If anything, he would hold it even more passionately, because the range of projects in which we are engaged is even more ground-breaking and absolutely unique than it was in the seventies.

I am beginning to hear Federationists offer even stronger objections to the fundraising we are now doing, but I have come to the conclusion that their objections are nothing more than a twenty-first-century version of the old I-don't-want-to-be-seen-as-a-beggar argument. The concern articulated by these folks is usually that we have lost our commitment to what the NFB has always stood for: helping individual blind people, doing Social Security cases, fighting court cases for individual blind people in trouble, assisting the newly blind. Of course we must continue to engage on all these fronts. The difference, as I see it, is that we used to be able to count on the good old national office to do the heavy lifting in these areas. Now that the programs conducted at the National Center for the Blind are so much more wide-reaching and innovative, now that we are leading the way in helping blind students to do math and science effectively, devising programs to help seniors adjust to blindness, providing the only truly objective place where people can learn about access technology, training professionals in consumer-based rehabilitation, and even helping to invent the first portable reader--now that we are engaged in projects like these--the state affiliates and local chapters are the parts of the Federation people turn to for personal help. We are closer to them anyway, so we actually are the folks who should be helping.

These changes take some getting used to. The world today is a different place. It used to be that a bunch of moderately articulate, well-informed blind volunteers could make a favorable impression on the powers that be locally or even nationally. After all, we were the only blind people articulating our views, and even if our materials sometimes looked as if they had been assembled by--well, a bunch of blind people, they were acceptable because…. Today, if we are to be taken seriously on the national scene, we have to be professional, and our documents and literature have to look professional.

All these factors work together, requiring us to find new ways to raise the funds we need to do the work we have taken on and to prepare materials that will not be dismissed as unprofessional or second rate. We cannot assume that someone else in the organization will raise the big bucks for us. Our old patterns of selling things to each other will no longer do. We have to find new ways of reaching beyond our membership to all the friends, family members, and business and professional acquaintances that our nationwide network of member volunteers have as a reservoir of potential contributors.

Enter the Imagination Fund. Though grant writers at every level of the Federation are attempting to identify foundations that we can approach to fund projects and programs and our members are invited with ever greater eagerness to contribute to cover the costs of our activities, we have come to recognize that something more is needed. Two years ago we created the Imagination Fund, a fundraising program designed to tap funding sources beyond our membership. NFB members who raise a significant amount from friends and family become Imaginators, as do those who actually make the gifts. A member can become an Imaginator by making a significant personal gift, but that misses the point. All of us know at least a few people who could make a significant gift to the NFB if we were to invite them to do so. The question is whether or not we will bother to ask them.

The Imagination Fund does not raise funds exclusively for the programs of the Jernigan Institute or even for all national programs. One quarter of the money raised in this effort is divided evenly among all the affiliates; another quarter is available to fund grant requests from affiliates and chapters; and the rest is allocated to fund national programs. Imagination Fund brochures and envelopes are available from Kristi Bowman at the National Office. I hope that you will search your heart and conscience and join me as an Imaginator. People lose sight every day. Every day babies are born with little or no vision. Every hour someone reaches the point of deciding to do something about poor vision or functional blindness. All these people need our help and can benefit from our expertise. You know about blindness. You can help if you will.

If push comes to shove, I hope I have the courage and commitment to stand on the corner and beg in order to fund our movement. I have decided to do everything I can to make certain that we never come to that extremity. I hope that you will think about these matters and join me as an Imaginator. I will be walking in the Independence March at the convention in Atlanta next July. To do so, one must have raised at least $250. I hope that you will pledge yourself to raise that much as well. If enough of us do so, no one will have to stand on the street corner selling pencils.

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