I attended university with someone who became a professional actor. We have been friends for over 40 years. Somewhere along the way, he married an artist. An actor and a painter – an amazing love affair but not the most likely formula for financial security.
In the rollercoaster ride that is life in the arts, my actor-friend treasured the good years and gave back when he could. For several years when he had a recurring role on a successful TV show, my friend sponsored a child overseas for $35 a month. As artists do, he felt a visceral and emotional connection with the child and her family that his and his wife’s contributions were supporting.
Everyone knows that success is a fleeting thing but artists live that reality every day. It was inevitable, then, that the TV show came to an end and my friend’s run of good luck evolved into an even longer run of the opposite — too many auditions, too few call-backs and even fewer paid gigs.
The household budget was revised and revised again to accommodate shrinking income until, finally, the $35 a month sponsorship was moved from the essential to the optional column. The payments could simply no longer be made. A new level of anxiety was added to my friend’s already stressful life as he worried about what would become of the child and her family that he had come to care about so deeply.
About 90 days later, a representative from the not-for-profit called to remind my friend that three payments had been missed. Wracked by sorrow and guilt, he tried to explain why he and his wife would have to suspend their sponsorship. The caller listened quietly and, at just the right moment, gently interrupted.
First, I want you to know that your foster child and her family are fine. We have a reserve fund that ensures that sponsorship will not be interrupted if a donor is unable to continue his or her support. Please do not worry. But, equally important, I want you to know how grateful we are for the generous donations you have provided over several years. You came along just when your child needed help the most. You gave her and her whole family a new start in life.
The caller’s kind words and sincere understanding lifted the stress from my friend’s overburdened shoulders.
That was twenty years ago. Since then, my actor/artist friends have had more than their share of financial ups and downs, but today they are enjoying a modest but more stable existence. Earlier this week, I was at their house for dinner and, it being the season of giving, the conversation turned to philanthropy. He told me this story and that now they could once again afford to give back by making charitable contributions. I asked them about their interests and which lucky charity or charities would be getting their support.
“There is no debate about that,” my friend said. “We will be loyal forever to the sponsorship agency that was there for us when we could no longer be there for them.”
So, here’s to the dedicated fundraisers who start work each evening in call centers all over North America just as the rest of us are going home. And, a special thank you to the exemplary ones at the top of their field who have the presence of mind to go off-script and give a donor encouragement and support when he or she needs it most.