A Story of Cemeteries, Snowdrops and a Philanthropic Epiphany
One of the golden rules of major gift fundraising is that before you ask others for donations, you should donate yourself. Now that this has proven to be a successful step in fundraising, perhaps we should delve deeper and discover our true philanthropic selves – both roots and wings. If the memory and experience of a single gift can provide a greater level of comfort and confidence in asking others to donate, then just imagine what might happen after discovering the whole story!
As part of my approach in teaching fundraising, I always recommend such an exploration. So I thought I’d share my own ‘first step into philanthropy’ story. If you want to skip the story and head straight to the handout I developed to help you on this journey, then here’s the link: Discovering Your Philanthropic Self Template
But, if you’re interested, have a bit of time (yes, I’ve probably blown all known blog rules and written a complete story versus providing a list of bullet points), then here’s my first recollection of anything linked to both asking for donations…and, well, eventually, making one.
And, now if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…
Cemeteries, Snowdrops and a Philanthropic Epiphany
What do you want to be when you grow up? Like many children, I was asked this question by adults and becoming a fundraiser was nowhere on the radar.
In fact, my first memory of anything to do with collecting money for charity were the coin boxes that flanked the double doors of Woolworth’s in my hometown of Wishaw (Scotland).
On one side was a sad, black Labrador coin box representing Guide Dogs for the Blind. He (when young, I thought all dogs were boys) always got a pat on the head and sometimes, I’d drop a penny or two into the slot between his ears.
But, it was the coin box on the opposite side that my favourite. She was a sad, yet beautiful little blonde-haired girl, with a brace on one leg (Mum told me she was just like the children who lived in the Dr. Barnardo’s orphanages).
She was clasping a teddy bear in one hand and a collection box, with a slot on the top, in the other. She was about the same height as me and the paint around her nose was chipped…I liked to think it was worn down over the years by frequent kisses from a caring community.
There were also a number of coin boxes that sat near the cash registers in our local shops. The most common one was the one for Dr. Barnardo’s Children’s’ Homes. It was such a cute little house.
Mum would have to pick me up to drop coins into it, as most countertops were beyond my reach. And, since this was like the home where the Woolworth’s girl lived, it made sense to give them money.
When I was young the geographical parameters for play were more or less infinite. It wasn’t a matter of distance that limited where I could play, it was one of time. As long as I could make it back in time for meals, then it was how long that journey would take that marked the boundaries.
Needless to say, all the places Mum warned me not to go – the old (and very derelict) mill, the Green Pipe (which stretched over the South Calder River) and the Belhaven estate – were visited on a regular basis.
On Saturday mornings after breakfast, my best friend Esther, and I would head out to play. A favourite destination was the Belhaven estate. It was built in the 16th century and demolished in 1958 so, there wasn’t much left of the mansion or outbuildings. However, that didn’t matter as the most magical place in the world (as we knew it) was to be found at the back of the grounds, hidden down near the river bank. It was a pet cemetery. Years later, I found out it was established by the 11th Lord Belhaven, Robert Edward Archibald, around 1850.
This was where all the pets from the estate were buried including Buz the Fox Terrier, Polly the Parrot and Googles the Pekingese dog. Also, dotted throughout the grounds were the elaborate headstones featuring carvings of horses’ heads – Lord Belhaven insisted in burying horses where they fell.
To put the allure of this pet cemetery into perspective, I should explain that Esther and I regularly spent hours combing through human cemeteries, recording headstone inscriptions in secret notebooks. We competed to find the oldest grave, the shortest life and the best epitaph. As a child in love with Scottish folklore, renowned for its dark side, this was an entirely delightful adventure. Combine this with a love of horses, dogs, monkeys – well, just about any animal and there you have it – a pet cemetery was nothing short of absolute fascination.
Now, every spring the pet cemetery was covered by what could be mistaken for a blanket of snow. On closer inspection, it was thousands upon thousands of snowdrops.
As the first flower of spring, with their single white blooms, they transformed the grounds into ‘snowdrop paradise’.
One spring, at the ripe old age of about 9, as Esther and I were witnessing this annual miracle, I had an idea. It was a way to share these hidden snowdrops with others while raising money. And so, we returned later that morning with baskets and elastic bands in hand. We set about gathering snowdrops and tying them into large and small bunches. We decided to sell the large bunches for sixpence and the small for threepence (pre-decimal British currency equaling approximately 10cents and 5 cents).
With baskets packed, off we went. We travelled up and down our neighbourhood streets selling these little posies and telling the surprised door-openers we were collecting money for Dr. Barnardo’s.
After a few hours, our baskets were empty and our pockets were full. Jingling and jangling, we headed to my house to count our takings. We had raised 13 shillings and sixpence – which to us was a fortune, given that it represented 9 weeks of pocket money! There it was, spread all over the kitchen table when my Mum walked in and immediately said, ‘Where did that money come from?’
After we told her, she said, ‘What a lovely thing to do for all those wee children.’
But when I responded…her smile soon faded.
‘Well, we did say we were collecting for Dr. Barnardo’s, but we didn’t actually mean it. We just wanted the money for ourselves.’
Now, my mother wasn’t an overly-religious woman, but she was known to bring God into a conversation whenever it seemed useful. Added to that, like a lot of Scots, she was quite superstitious.
‘Well, now. You’ll know God would have seen and heard everything that happened today. He’s watched all that money, especially the silver, cross your palm. Now, I don’t know what he’d say about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all that money left its mark because of the lies. But, you know what… it’s your decision. If you keep that money and buy things with it, then you’ll be one taking your chances with all that bad luck.,’ and with that, she left us to ponder the situation.
Esther and I thought about what Mum had said, looked at all that money, weighed our options and decided to split the takings…then moved quickly to talking about what we were going to buy with it.
The next morning, after a rather uncomfortable night – occasionally waking up to scratch an increasingly itchy palm – the family headed to church. As usual, after sitting with the grown-ups in the ‘big church’ my sister and brother and I left to join the Sunday school teacher. By the time I got home, my palm was redder than ever and I was wondering whether or not what appeared to be a black spot emerging in the centre might develop into a hole (as my older sister had predicted).
Later that afternoon, Esther and announced to my Mum that we had decided to give the money to Dr. Barnardo’s Home.
By the following Saturday, a group of four (Esther, I and our mothers) stood at the entrance gates to Dr. Barnardo’s Home.
You couldn’t actually see the home from the road. It was hidden by a high stone wall – unscalable due to the multi-coloured, broken-bottle glass embedded in cement that ran along the top – and a long, winding avenue of chestnut trees. The gatekeeper opened the gates and we walked along the avenue with its bright yellow border of newly-sprung daffodils toward the doors at the front of an oppressive stone building.
It was a strange, almost eerie place. I wasn’t completely surprised at this reaction because ‘being dropped off at Dr. Barnardo’s’ was a threat most parents used to curb misbehaviour. Many of the homes used as orphanages by Dr. Barnardo’s had been donated, and included stately homes, castles and mansions. This one was no exception and as we got closer to the large front doors, I felt myself grow ever smaller. I also noticed there wasn’t a single child to be seen on the grounds or at any of the large, dark windows.
We were greeted by an older woman dressed in a tweed skirt and a grey twin set and a single strand of pearls. She stepped outside the door, closed it behind her and patiently listened to what we had to say. After Mum had finished, she smiled, especially at Esther and I, said thank you when Mum handed her the money (now converted to larger coins in an envelope). She asked us to wait for a moment, and she slipped back into the building.
When she re-appeared, there was another woman at her side. They invited Esther and me to return in one week’s time to have tea with the children…as a way of showing their gratitude. Then, after shaking hands and more smiles, we left and headed for home.
A few days later, a story appeared in the local newspaper heralding the generousity of two local children and their admirable efforts in helping Dr. Barnardo’s. It was even read out by our primary school teacher in class.
Next Saturday rolled around. Esther and I, all washed and dressed, walked once again along the avenue and, this time, in through the large front doors of Dr. Barnardo’s Home. We were escorted into a large dining area and seated at what appeared to be the head table. The room featured huge picture windows revealing manicured gardens and expansive lawns and was exquisitely decorated for an English-style afternoon tea. The kind woman who had greeted us the week before told us the children would be arriving shortly and then left us alone.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the three-tiered cake plate that sat immediately in front of us. It had an incredible selection of cakes and sandwiches. I was already planning which ones I’d eat and in what order. I noticed the other tables in the room only had single plates in the centre and felt quite special to be seated at this particular table.
After about ten minutes, the doors at the end of the dining room opened and the first people to enter were nurses followed by children, and then more nurses as the room started to fill. The children were not like the little blonde Woolworth’s girl. In fact, they were very different to her or any other child I’d met. I found out years later that a lot of orphans at Dr. Barnardo’s home, around this time, were children whose mothers were prescribed Thalidomide during their pregnancies and a few of the other children were hydrocephalic (suffered from water on the brain).
Unfortunately, integration of children with disabilities into mainstream society didn’t exist in those days. As a result, I’d never seen anyone with such severe physical disabilities. Up until that point in my life, my experience with nurses, doctors or illness was directly related to infectious diseases like measles, mumps and chickenpox. As I sat there watching children who had malformed or absent arms or legs or whose heads were so swollen and heavy that they were unable to hold them upright, all I could think about was that whatever this was, it might be something I could catch. And so, I got scared, really scared.
As everyone moved into the room, shuffling chairs about and getting everyone seated, I realized the cakes and sandwiches so carefully chosen and admired, has lost all appeal. Despite the kind words and gestures of the lady sitting beside me, I couldn’t touch them. I politely declined offers of tea, milk or juice and as my eyes continued to soak in the reality of the room, I began to think that even breathing the air might infect me. I had no idea how long I sat there, doing nothing and taking ever-shallower breaths and smiling when I felt I had to, before turning my attention to Esther. It was like looking in a mirror. She was sitting, eyes wide, mouth slightly open and very, very still.
I felt myself push my seat away from the table. Esther copied my movements. I excused myself (as Mum had taught me) and asked permission to leave the table. The kind lady looked rather surprised as I explained that I wasn’t feeling very well and neither was Esther and that we really had to leave.
I don’t actually remember what we said to the Dr. Barnardo’s ladies, or how we got outside. I just remember grabbing Esther’s hand and running as fast as I could along that avenue, out through the gates and down the lane before stopping, gasping for breath as both Esther and I, tears in our eyes, settled ourselves before walking the rest of the way home.
What did I learn?
Well, not a lot initially. I was just glad to get out of there and I didn’t talk about it very much to anyone, but was very relieved that I didn’t fall ill as a result of the visit.
However, as time passed, the enormity of lessons learned hit home: in retrospect, this experience taught me so much about the need for integration and equality across all abilities, the importance of creating truly accessible communities, and the important role of the charitable sector. But more than anything else – I really did learn the need to be ethical when it comes to fundraising. In fact, one of my first conversations with any donor or prospective donor is to make sure I explain my professional code of ethics.
So, that’s my first experience of being a fundraiser. What’s yours? I think we could all benefit through sharing these personal and sometimes powerful stories.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re interested in exploring your philanthropic side (or that of your colleagues or partners) and finding out how this can help you delve into meaningful conversations with donors, here’s a guide to help you on your journey: Discovering Your Philanthropic Self Template.
I’d love to hear your story…or your comments. Thank you.