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Driver’s Seat
Christmas joy and solicitations
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The Christmas season is upon us, which means many things, not the least of which is the arrival of envelopes filled with return-address stickers.

These are sent to us by 8,430 charitable groups to encourage us (1) to write more letters to everyone on earth, and (2) to send in donations so that the 8,430 charities can continue to exist and print more return-address stickers next year.

Occasionally I do something really foolish in response to these appeals. I send a donation to some of them. Each charity then sends me a thank-you letter, continues to do good things for people, and forwards my name and address to hundreds of other charities. This is called the Christmas spirit, and recalls the Gospel of Luke, which says, “And there were in those days shepherds in the fields, sending out envelopes filled with return-address labels.”

Fundraising is an honorable profession, ranking well above advertising and daytime TV courtroom or Jerry Springer type shows displaying the troubles of terminally obese, grammatically challenged victims of unpaid child support and fraudulent used-car sales. I have worked in fundraising and enjoyed it, mostly because I was a writer and did not have to go out and actually make the request to the prospective donor. That is one tough job, and I salute those with the skill and courage to carry it off.

Today Americans are surrounded by fundraising. Solicitations come from all directions – by phone, email, billboards, snail mail and via heart-healthy walks and triathlons featuring women in pink. Almost every public social event is a fundraiser. The completely private party has faded away. The last one I’m aware of was in Belleair in 2008, when eight couples got together for an evening of bridge, with no charitable donations required.

The Public Broadcasting System has raised begging to a permanent practice. Each morning when I shave I switch my bathroom radio to a PBS classical music station. But the odds of my being greeted by Mozart or Bach are no more than even with the likelihood of a voice reminding me that the music (when it occurs) is brought to me by the support of people like me.

Throughout the year, PBS TV stations present high quality programming in the form of documentaries by Ken Burns, drama and comedy from BBC, symphonies, operas and interviews by Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and other worthies. But interspersed with the good stuff are continuing reunions of old-time rock groups, small and large bands and shopworn singers resurrected from the ’60s, the ’50s and hymn recitals by the Pilgrims.

Much of this is fairly enjoyable, but the entertainment is constantly broken up with fundraising pitches by gushing matrons from a local society. If I were king, I would dispense with these interruptions and simply display an on-screen runner saying, “FOR GOD’S SAKE, PLEASE SEND US MONEY!”

As I watch PBS programs, I see the listing of the many foundations that support PBS. I say to myself, “Who ARE these people? Where did they get so much cash?” So I did some research.

The first thing I learned is that it doesn’t take a lot of dough to establish a foundation. A few thousand bucks and a week of paperwork is often enough to get you in business.

As for the billions of dollars controlled by foundations, the sources are varied. Possibly the foundation most of us are familiar with is the one run by Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. Bill is one of the founders of the giant computer firm Microsoft; he has resolved to get rid of all his money by the time he dies. This goal, of course, can be reached without setting up a foundation; slow horses, fast women and booze can also do it.

The John D. MacArthur Foundation has its roots in Mr. MacArthur’s company, Bankers Life and Casualty. The foundation is perhaps best known for its practice of each year selecting a few talented and promising Americans and dropping a huge chunk of money into their laps without any advance warning. No one knows who nominates the candidates, or who selects the winners. Each time your phone rings, it could be the MacArthur people calling you. So keep on hoping.

One of the earliest philanthropies was the Rockefeller Foundation, built on the oil and railroad holdings of the Rockefeller family. The Kellogg Foundation is the product of all that breakfast cereal Americans have eaten. The Pew Charitable Trusts are the offspring of the Sun Oil Co., which built Grove City (Pa.) College. As a boy, I washed dishes in the Mary Anderson Pew women’s dormitory.

That’s enough about fundraising. I must close and sort through a new batch of return-address labels.

Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at
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