by Judy Wilkinson
November 7, 1987 was unseasonably warm in the Bay Area, promising a beautiful evening for a chartered outing on San Francisco Bay.
The Kurzweil Scanner had recently come on the market, with a price of $12,000. Where could I get that kind of money? I knew this device would revolutionize my horizon as a community college professor of English, teaching mostly composition courses, with the occasional literature course as a treat. Finally I would be able to scan student assignments and preview texts for possible adoption, a luxury I could ill afford once I’d paid for a text to be transcribed into braille at my own expense. But $12,000! Way beyond my limited finances. We’re talking long before I had any rights to having my reasonable accommodation needs met by my district. And of course, long before the inexpensive scanning apps of today.
Early that summer the answer came to me: a variation on a rent party! You know, those pre-pandemic times when during the Depression, folks asked neighbors to help get the rent money.
Realizing I’d have to invest some of my own money up front, I undertook a multi-faceted, many-tasked project to raise that $12,000. I began with my local PBS station’s live auction. I snagged an evening cruise with Blue and Gold Charters for $1,200 (usually over $4,000), a bargain. The string quartet for entertainment was $150, and the catering service was $1,500. So instead of putting $2,850 toward the Kurzweil, I was that much in debt in the other direction. Was I scared? You bet! Would my friends come through?
My reader and I sent out several hundred letters explaining to my circle how much having this scanner would revolutionize my teaching. Would they purchase $35 tickets for my evening cruise? So many did; they invited their friends. They bought tickets; they added a bit extra; they added a lot extra. One of my favorite singers took a chance and lent me her mailing list. More tickets.
A snag! Any booze sold onboard could only be purchased at the yacht’s bar. But I could give away drinks! So as folks neared the gangplank, my scout sold them cards to “get their gift” of wine onboard: $10 for a bottle of champagne (pink card); red for red wine; white for white. My local wine store gave me a wonderful discount and so even here I made a profit, and the Blue & Gold folks thought people were picking up my gift.
It was truly a wonderful event! The string quartet was splendid; though we ran out of food, the catered buffet was enjoyed. For me personally, this was one of the last events my mother attended. She had been very skeptical. “You can’t charge people for wine! You can’t ask your friends for money!” But in the end I know she was proud; in fact, somewhat indignant on my behalf. “The captain just walked by and didn’t even acknowledge you,” she informed me. She was in her glory that night visiting with all those on board; the cancer took her a year later.
When all was said and done, I cleared over $9,000; still not enough. I learned a lot about managing my overhead costs more efficiently the next time (not useful in this particular case, however). But one of the attendees was so impressed with my effort that he offered to lend me the remainder of the money — a loan to be paid at no interest over two years. But even here, kindness prevailed. After paying promptly for six months, my generous benefactor forgave the remainder of the loan.
And indeed, as I had hoped, that scanner changed my entire teaching strategy.
So, you might well ask, that’s all well and good for nearly 35 years ago when PBS stations had live auctions, but what takeaways are there for today?
- Assume people are willing to support a worthy cause: think chapter outreach; state or national affiliate fundraising campaign!
- If you never ask, the answer is always NO! However much we dread picking up the phone or sending that email with an ask, no one ever died from being refused or hearing “No!”
- You may need to invest money to make money. Or to put it another way, you may need to take some risk to gain greater benefit.
- Aim high. Your strategy may be to begin with a small ask, but think long term.
- Plan carefully: as is said, God is in the details! I included stamped return envelopes, making it easy for folks to respond. Today snail mail may be quaint history, but the principle is the same: work out your details.
- One person can make a huge difference!
Much of what I learned from this personal effort stood me in good stead during my presidency of the California Council of the Blind. I took risks. Some failed spectacularly. Others, however, moved the Council forward on our path of serving folks who are blind or visually impaired. If you dream big, the sky is the limit.