My first paying job in New York was in the fundraising and development department of a nonprofit that helped homeless New Yorkers get access to healthcare. The job was a godsend. A woman who did some work with the off-off Broadway theater where I spent my final semester of grad school interning was looking for an assistant and through a chain of events, she got my name and I got the job. Though I didn’t have any experience with fundraising in a professional capacity, I quickly learned how to log donations and configure the necessary spreadsheets—so many spreadsheets—and organized clothing drives and book donations for our shelters.
I’d done a bit of fundraising in high school. In order to pay for church trips, my youth group spent sizable portions of our summers raising money. We did a rummage sale a couple times; an event akin to an over-sized garage sale in the church parking lot. Everyone brought items to donate, the proceeds of which would go toward whatever trip was coming up next. This was made more exciting by the fact we, teenagers with only a passive concept of a normal sleep schedule during the summer, stayed at the church all night to price the items and set up for the sale. That part only took an hour or two though and the rest of the night was spent playing kick-the-can in the dark or climbing in, on top of, and underneath anything and everything in the church building. We explored the space under the stage, the insides of unlocked offices, and the treasures within closets full of candy and costumes. Nothing was better than a shockingly unsupervised all-nighter full of snooping in God’s house.
We also raised money by manning a Sonic restaurant for a Saturday. Taking the place of the usual carhops, we’d bring the customer’s food and drinks to them and any tips we received would go toward our trip. These were fun days full of fast food and never-ending refills of soda and quite frankly, it was a sweet deal for Sonic since they were given an army of eager employees to whom they didn’t have a pay a dime.
My favorite way of fundraising, however, was when we took over a concession stand during the soccer games at the Cotton Bowl. We served up sodas and nachos and hotdogs for hours, sometimes over the course of a double-header Saturday, and in return, took home a percentage of the profit. It was hard work, keeping the lines moving and doling out spoonful after spoonful of glorious ballpark cheese, but we each wound up earning around 100 dollars a day which brought down the cost of our trips considerably with each repeat Saturday at concession stand 19. There was the added bonus of endless free nachos during the day and once the games were over and the money counted, we ate our body weight in the hotdogs that hadn’t been sold.
Fundraising at the nonprofit wouldn’t be quite as edible but one perk was my ability to utilize my publication background when it came time to design annual reports, fliers to send to prospective donors, and invitations and materials for the annual benefit. Though I would’ve preferred spending my days designing such materials exclusively, they were mostly spent doing monotonous fundraising data entry, something that chipped away at my spirit little-by-little. But that changed when it came time to work on the benefit. Not only was I thrilled to work on something different but the benefit prep meshed well with my planner-nature. Planning is pretty high up on my list of spiritual gifts and the sight of color-coded spreadsheets and outlines and bullet-pointed lists really got me going.
Held at one of the classic comedy clubs in Times Square, the annual benefit featured comedians doing short sets to entertain drunken donors who’d paid for tables with which to invite their friends and impress them with their generosity. Featuring up-and-comers as well as established names, the comedians made people laugh and routinely made our executive director uncomfortable. As conservative as they come, he regularly reminded us to tell the comedians to keep it clean. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel it was not, but one year SNL’s “Weekend Update” alum Colin Quinn opened the night and the following year, a soon-to-be “Weekend Update” anchor Michael Che did the same.
A few months before my third at-bat with the event, my boss left the organization for a better paying gig in Brooklyn. Without time to hire a new development director before the benefit, the responsibility fell to my shoulders.
The Board member who served as the event’s Chair made a big to-do about how much slack he would be taking on in the absence of my boss but in reality, everything from designing the invites to the day-to-day communications and contract negotiations with the club remained under my purview. I sent the information to everyone who got it the year before and each Board member had an additional list of people to hit up and beg for money so I dutifully did that as well. In the weeks that followed, the intake was slower than the previous two years but the checks began to arrive as we got closer.
As the event neared, we had one meeting at the club to nail down some details about what was on the menu and that was the singular meeting for which the Chair showed up. There were the sliders he just had to have, the chicken he was such a fan of, and the chocolate cake he’d “been thinking about since last year.” None of this made much sense to me since the food was average at best, but I still threw my opinion into the ring concerning the other passed appetizers. I tend to only care about the appetizers at a party.
I spent the day of the benefit setting up the club so it would be ready for donors to start arriving. As it happened, the event was taking place the night before Halloween and the Chair asked specifically for orange balloons to “give that Halloween feeling to the room.” The walls of the room itself were painted orange and yellow already and I knew his feeble attempt at being themey would go unnoticed so I bought bags of candy corn and pumpkin candies and placed a dish full on each table and along the bar.
As guests arrived, I played ghost host, quietly making sure people were checked in, ensuring guests knew where the open bar was, and keeping the appetizers circulating in a steady manner. That last part was an entirely selfish act as I was popping the fried raviolis in my mouth by the handful and had no intention of stopping.
I’d done two of these benefits before so I knew to prepare a couple extra tables in case unannounced guests showed up. As providence would have it, they did. Years of watching Gilmore Girls had trained me for this moment. Just as when Logan’s mother arrived at Rory’s event unannounced and expecting a table, so did two groups of people tangentially related to one of the Board members. As the women at the check-in table searched for their nonexistent names on the master lists, I saw a Board member who was three-gins-deep begin to huff and puff at our incompetence. I zipped over, directed him and his guests to one of the spare tables as if it was theirs to begin with, and the issue was over in moments. In the end, exactly as many people showed up unannounced as I had spare seats. Me and Rory, crushing the event planning game.
Once happy hour was over—it was called a VIP reception but that was just event gobbledygook to make people feel important—the guests seemed far too thrilled to have candy corn on their tables, something I found quite sad. Still, I quietly celebrated my foresight and the gift I’d given them—the gift of fall wonderment in confection form—and I flitted around the room making sure everyone was well taken care of. Apparently, the guests were so overly chatty about the candy corn, they made no mention of the Chair’s must-have orange balloons so when he stood to give his long, self-indulgent remarks about the event he put on the organization, he made sure to point out the festive Halloween balloons. Twice. God bless.
As the comedians began to take the stage, my work was done. Food was on the tables, people were in their seats, and the waiters had nothing to do but bring me whiskey gingers for the rest of the night. Which they did and I, with a mouthful of candy corn, laughed along with everyone else.
When all was said and done, the evening’s execution was flawless and guests left full, drunk and happy, but the total dollar amount brought in was less than the year before. In terms of New York charitable giving, ours was a modest benefit with modest numbers, but it didn’t look good on paper to the Board. I’d never been beholden to a Board of Directors before and as much as the majority were good folks who were active and engaged in trying to help people, a few were more like the man I’d been “working with” on the benefit; they did minimal work and took maximum credit.
While math was never my strongest suit, I spent many hours ensuring everything benefit-related lined up. I knew the total raised wasn’t the number they were looking for but I also knew I’d shaved the costs down to such a minimal expense, the net was higher than the previous year. I was proud of that. I organized a gala with all the extras and ambience of the previous years but with better appetizers, more candy and less expense off the top. All in all, I saved around $14,000 in expenses and extras, money that could now go to help homeless New Yorkers, and that was something I proudly presented in bold type on the financials.
No one cared. After the Chair presented the finances at the Board meeting, the conversation quickly moved to needing more people in the seats. The attention shifted to the Executive Director’s secretary and “all the hard work she put into the evening”—work that included signing people in at the door and not much else—and I sat quietly as they perseverated over how to make up for what we’d lost. Never mind the amount hitting the bank was higher than the previous year, they talked about how “this year just wasn’t as beneficial as the last. It’s because we didn’t have a leader like last year.” I felt publicly shamed and embarrassed and it was all I could do to not burst into tears and run home with my tail between my legs.
That set the tone for the duration of my time at the organization. Eventually, a new development director was hired, bringing with her all the new ideas and new ways of doing things one would expect from a new director. It was clear I didn’t fit in with those ideas. I tried keeping myself busy with designing the annual report and taking clothes and books and scarves and backpacks to the shelters for the folks who needed them, but it wasn’t enough. Every morning, I woke up with a sense of dread over what lied ahead of me that day.
I had a conversation with a friend last week about how she’d recently left her job and was charting a new course. She’d spent far too much time feeling exactly as I felt at that nonprofit, weary of every day she had to wake up and go to work. It wasn’t a place she felt edified, her work didn’t bring her any sort of fulfilment or challenge, and she dreamt of a way out. So she made one. She said, “Most people don’t know you don’t have to live that way. There are other ways of making a living that don’t include being miserable.”
I wish I’d had someone say that to me when I felt so trapped but I didn’t so I stuck around. I tried to keep my head down, get my work done and get the hell out of there at 5:00 on the dot. After a few months, the new director made the decision to restructure the way the development office worked and that restructuring didn’t include me. It was the first time I was let go from a job and it was a disorienting experience. I was hurt because I’d been working so hard, I was disappointed because it was a decision made for me, and I was panicked because I barely had the means to survive as it was and with no money in savings, the rent would be due whether I had a job or not. All of these things spun around my head in a Sharknado of violent thrashing and as I packed up my desk, I felt so dizzy I thought I might faint.
I left the office and walked toward the Empire State Building, the route I’d walked every day and now wouldn’t any longer. The sun was setting in front of me, the long shadow of the New York’s most famous skyscraper coating entire blocks in a blue haze, and something inside of me released. I felt free. I was nervous about what was next, but I was free. Freedom isn’t always easy and peaceful, I had a year of immense difficulty ahead, but I was released from the place that had engendered such shame and disappointment in me in the wake of what should’ve been a triumph.
Hold up. You know what? It was a triumph. A Halloween triumph at that. The Board may not have been thrilled but the homeless recipients of $14,000 worth of care sure were. Once I remembered that, I dropped the feeling of inadequacy like a bad habit (which it was). I didn’t feel super great about the aftermath of that evening and the months that followed, but I learned a lot from that job. I learned I could run an event and succeed at doing so. I learned triumphs aren’t always public and they don’t need to be. And one night, the night before Halloween, I was entrusted with the sacred honor of teaching a roomful of suits one of the most important lessons they will ever learn: candy corn makes everything better.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.