How to part us swells from our cash
November 11, 1982
A polemic, disguised as a humorous essay, about how hospitals, schools, and arts organization are obliged to hew to the priorities of the well-off to pay for facilities that in a more advanced state would be paid for by the people and for the people.
Content slightly edited from the original, not that you’d notice.
I was flattered not long ago, and a little surprised, to be invited to become a member of the Memorial Medical Center Foundation. The Springfield hospital (its letter explained) had undertaken to “broaden the philanthropic base” of that institution. Just in case, I had L. read the letter too, and she confirmed what that meant was that they wanted me to give them some money.
Any philanthropic base which is broad enough to include me in it is very broad indeed. The extent of my charitable giving is the five bucks I gave toward the cost of lights for Sangamon State University’s new soccer stadium. The letter didn’t explain what they wanted the money for; “vital to the accomplishment of the hospital’s goals” is all it said, and I half-suspect that the hospital’s main goal is simply to have more money. It didn’t matter, because I found myself more interested in means than ends anyway.
Fund-raising is one of the more arcane sciences. It seems simple enough. You give the hospital or the school or whatever some money, and in return they throw your name around so everybody else in town will know what a swell guy you are. How far they throw your name depends on how much you give. You can become an “associate” of Memorial’s Foundation for as little as $100 or a “sponsor” for only $500. A mere $1,000 earns you the title “founder.” This is cheap by today’s standards. It cost Dick Durbin more than $500,000 to earn the title “Congressman.”
More than 400 years ago, when he was asked to pony up for oranges for the fleet in exchange for the honorific “Commodore,” William Shakespeare replied, “What’s in a name?”—a question which has since been asked a million times by fund-raisers. The answer devised by outfits like the foundation is, depends on where that name is displayed. Pikers get their names printed in hospital publications. The big tippers get their names emblazoned on plaques mounted in the hospital’s corridors, where visitors may read them and spare them a kind thought while waiting for news about Harry’s spleen. The really high rollers—your founders—earn what the foundation refers to obliquely as “appropriate mementoes.”
It’s pretty easy to see why people would want to donate money to a hospital. Back in October, for instance, Memorial announced plans to build a $6 million open-heart surgery center (80 percent of whose cost has already been collected) which will perform about 300 such operations a year. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the Springfield area, according to the people who keep track of these things, and a sizable number of those who croak every year are overfed, under-exercised business types who have a bit of cash and who may be expected to fork it over to an open-heart surgery center for the same reasons that young parents usually vote for school bond issues.
But no one has ever died from missing a performance of La Boheme or Swan Lake, although there have been times I wished I had died while watching one. How, then, does the SSU Foundation expect to get the million dollars it seeks to raise for its new performing arts fund? Well, next to survival, the most compelling human instinct is vanity, and you will not be surprised to hear that plaques are part of SSU’s scam too. “In the history of the performing arts,” reads SSU’s brochure, “few names are engraved. If you can’t share the stage, share the glory.”
This is pretty good stuff. The wheeze works like this: For $200 you can buy a silver plaque which will be engraved with your name or your company or your Pekinese or whatever and attached to a balcony seat in the SSU auditorium. (Plaques on choicer seats go for $500 and $750.) For $1,500 you get a plaque with a “patron” symbol engraved on it along with your name. Shell out another $1,500 and they’ll put your name up in the lobby where everybody can see it. Another two grand—that’s $5,000 in all—and you win a gold plaque and your name mounted on a special 35-foot “founder’s wall.”
One can only speculate about what heights of gratitude the university might scale in return for, say, $10,000. A few years ago, ten grand could buy a judgeship, and even now one can get a bill killed in the General Assembly for less. Hell, a donation half that large made to the right man can get your sister-in-law’s name engraved on the payroll of a state agency.
Still, it seems to work. SSU has released an early list of donors, and there are 262 of them whose gifts must (by my arithmetic) amount to an absolute minimum of $170,000. Didn’t think there was that much loose cash lying around Springfield? Of those 262 gifts, 22 percent came wholly or in part from physicians. (My count includes dentists.) The number of physicians who contributed actually is much higher, since two gifts came from groups of doctors.
Why this disproportionate bounty laid at the feet of the Muses? Tax deductions, of course. The average income of physicians these days is a tad more than $80,000 a year. That puts him or her in a marginal tax bracket up near 60 percent. (Of course, a physician would never actually be in the 60 percent tax bracket. That is a terrifying but largely mythical territory which their accountants conjure up to frighten their clients into their next cattle deal, much the way mothers sometimes threaten recalcitrant children with hell to make them eat their broccoli.) Every dollar given to SSU or Memorial thus costs its giver only 40 cents. Where else can you buy gold for 40 cents on the dollar?
But how do you get money from all those other citizens for whom the tax advantages of giving are not so compelling? Clearly, one must resort to other tools to pry open wallets. The LPGA auctions off players for a day. Fund-raisers for City Day School and Aid to Retarded Citizens auction off weekends in each other’s summer cottages and Chicago condos, cater each other’s parties, and so on. Which of course is pretty much what they do most of the time anyway. But these trifles, attractive as they may be to the idle rich, offer few rewards to the serious giver.
If I was running SSU’s fund drive, I would offer sponsors advertising space on the backs of actors’ costumes worn during stage productions, like on bowling teams. (“Tired after a long day’s journey into night? Ernie’s. Happy Hour 5-6:30.”) For $1,500 I would arrange to substitute the donor’s name for that of one of the major characters in the play. (Imagine the thrill when Marc Antony opens his mouth and intones, “I come to bury Herbert J. Foosman, not to praise him.” Or when, during a musical production number, the chorus explodes with a lusty rendition of, “Hello, Herbert, well, hello, Herbert. It’s so nice to have your cash where it belongs.”)
Nor have the possibilities been exhausted by the hospitals. Instead of engraving a donor’s name on a plaque, how about arranging for a surgeon to engrave it on the abdomen of a gall bladder patient? (Talk about “living memorials.”) In 1979 City Day School, in cooperation with a local radio station, auctioned off a chance to be a DJ for a day. Why not auction off a chance to be a thorassic surgeon for a day? (“Perfect gift for cut-ups.”)
I’m willing to donate my suggestions free of charge to both organizations. But just in case they wish to recognize my contribution, I’d like my plaque to read, “James Krohe Jr. ‘Mr. Wonderful.’” They can put it wherever they want to. ●