Recently, I undertook a fundraising expedition on behalf of Friends of the Everglades, the non-profit where I serve as a volunteer board member. Charitable groups never talk about fundraising publicly, but if you read on you will understand this exception.
We need to raise money for a federal lawsuit that would open a new front in the David v. Goliath fight to protect and to restore the remnant Everglades.
Lawyers and experts aren’t free. Goliath can pollute and defend lawsuits out of its marketing and legal budgets. David has to raise money from private after-tax dollars.
Over time, I’ve learned to seek out big donors who can write a six-figure check easily as one for a hundred dollars.
Our prospect arrived at a restaurant in Palm Beach. It was empty and early for lunch. He is ninety, neatly dressed, and gingerly pushing an aluminum walker with an helper nearby to guide him, so no foot snag on the carpet.
It had been a few years since last meeting. I saw at once how cognitive lapses had filled spaces once lucid and sharp.
I have a ninety three year old mother, who can perfectly recall what happened on a day forty five years ago but struggles to remember what she did two hours ago. My in-laws both suffered memory loss. With octogenarians, I know what to expect: the unexpected.
Our conversation meandered. He talked about his contribution to a local hospital. A new department was saving the lives of desperately ill children. He contributed millions of dollars. He told me how he had met the doctor. The doctor introduced him to a visiting professor who agreed to come to Palm Beach but only if a new building was constructed. Then a few minutes later he repeated the story. And again. And after a little while, again. Three times.
Moreover, my interlocuter's hearing was poor. It was hard to tell if he was misinterpreting what I said because he couldn’t hear or because he couldn’t process what I was saying.
After an hour and a half of back and forth, with questions falling off the table like bread crumbs, I began my pitch, slowly and enunciated clearly.
Basically, I said: the water is being polluted. We know because we have science. We know who the polluters are. Our best chance of fixing the problem is in federal court.
He asked, why do you need more science, if you have the science?
Because, I answered, the other side always comes up with their own scientists, their own conclusions based on their own experts even though they are, in effect, lying.
Do you have the media on your side? my prospect asked. Who does your public relations? These were good questions, and as we progressed I could tell that faulty connections were sparking.
But he stuck on the point of federal litigation. Why do you need to go to court? he asked. I'd explain, and he would ask me again.
An earlier version of himself would have known the answer. Because we will never get a fair hearing by the State of Florida, or the Florida legislature.
Do you have a solution? Yes, we do. We know the solution. I was now alternating my conversation with the younger version of himself.
And how about the communities affected by this polluted water; why aren’t they contributing money to this program? And why don’t you have a coalition that’s all working together?
I answered, in clear and direct language. We do have a coalition. We do have communities giving but not enough. In our case, waging an effective battle in federal court starts at $500,000. The number didn't faze him.
Then I made the ask for a large contribution. What he said, then, surprised me.
He wanted to go back to the issue of federal court. Why, he asked, do you need to go to court? At this point, I took a deep breath, back in the mist. I started to explain when he waved his hand to stop.
Do you know who the polluters are? Yes. Do you have the science? Yes we do. So it is clear who is at fault? No question, I answered.
Why do they keep polluting? he asked.
I said, they keep polluting because they make so much money doing it.
Why do they do it? What they are doing is wrong, he said. I agreed.
If you could just tell enough people, he said … do you have the media on your side?
I showed him the newspaper articles on my cell phone.
I don’t understand, he said, how they can continue to pollute.
It was an honest statement. He was right.
There is no one to stop them, I answered, feeling the weight of decades; of half-measures, compromises, and poor judgment by voters and the officials they elected.
He repeated himself. It doesn’t make sense.
No, it doesn't.
This is how the story ends: Friends of the Everglades didn’t get a check, at least not yet. But my lunch companion gave me a gift to share.
Through the fog of misfiring neurons, what shone through was his ethical center. "I just don't understand" how people can behave so badly was, just like that, a form of grace.
Call his perplexity, the angel of our better nature. That angel is accessible to us for free, whether we are nine or ninety.
I just don’t understand is exactly what the angels of our better nature say about the climate crisis, about global warming, and the willingness of elected representatives to lie and dissemble as so many are doing in many state capitols and in Congress today.
It doesn’t make sense why anyone has to spend money to protect the environment. Nine year olds and ninety year olds: I just don’t understand. It doesn't make sense. That's the truth.
NOTE: If you have any end-of-year charitable contributions, Friends of the Everglades is a worthy, qualified non-profit.