Monday, August 10, 2009

Affirmative Action

A major donor to his alma mater showed up for a football game and as he entered the arena asked the usher where the 50 yard line was. The reply was "sir wherever you wish."

It seems the board and top leadership of the University of Illinois are all for affirmative action. They kept a private list of "connected" individuals to whose children, other relatives or friends admissions preference would be given. I am not rushing to judgment here because I really don't have anything except what I read. But this business of preference comes up all the time in every type of charity. Human character being what it is there is no doubt that the wink-and-a-nod approach to admissions, orchestra seats, elite health care, or for that matter the "right" restaurant table is a clear and present danger.

Development officers rattle on about how building "relationships" with donors is the essence of their work. The donors would more likely call it "connections." Indeed there is absolutely nothing egalitarian about philanthropy and moreover people slip off the ethical cliff all the time. There are major tertiary health care centers with special telephone numbers for key donors; there are theater companies with green rooms for "patrons;" CEOs swig tea with LOLs (no, not laugh-out-loud); "call-me-anytime" privileges attach to those whose importance is digitally enhanced.

A former Oram colleague became development officer at a symphony orchestra in a deep south city whose season opened in early September when even at 7p the temperature was still in triple digits. The women liked to wear their furs on opening night. Forget tote bags, coffee mugs and all the other tchotske "premiums" of the fund raising trade. His best gift to major donors was letting them park their Bentleys in immediate proximity to the front steps of the auditorium. Or as Marilyn Shapiro former major gifts at the Metropolitan Opera put it to me one time: "the ones who give the most get the most!"

I'm for affirmative action. Aren't you?

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