What’s my New Year’s Resolution? What’s the hardest thing for me?
Raise more money.
When The Verrazano Foundation needed to raise money, I called my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman for advice. Bernie had done wondrous fundraising for The Greyston Foundation. I told him about our situation and he told me, “If I was going to hire a fundraiser, you would be the last person in the world I would hire.”
Strange Koan. And all Koan are strange, paradoxical challenges which push us outside our rationale mind.
I wanted to spend more time with Bernie. It’s the best way to learn from the teacher.
“Join me on the street.” Okay.
The ticket of admission: Raise a mala, a rosary-like, Buddhist bracelet of 18 beads each representing a contribution of $108 and one large bead representing $1080. An introduction to the traditional Buddhist begging practice and to life on the street. I was afraid to ask face-to-face so I wrote personal letters. Everyone I knew. Friends. Family. Accountant. Dentists. I told people about my spiritual journey and my Zen practice, why I wanted to join Bernie on the Street,about his practice and how he had started Greyston to serve the homeless. I explained that by contributing to my mala they were advancing Bernie’s practice as well as mine. I invited them to join me on my journey and I promised that with their names engraved on a mala bead they would be with me on the street and that I would write to them about my experience when I returned. I was surprised by who gave and I was surprised that they all gave $108. Everyone gave $108. Dentists, my accountant, a former therapist. My wife, Diane, came through with the big bead. Some people disappointed me. My best man refused to give. And I raised my first mala.
Over the years, I continued to do this mala practice which was strangely, wonderfully transforming. Sometimes to support my Zen practice, sometimes to support others. I raised a mala to support my friend Martha Bragin’s work with the child soldiers of Angola.
What I have learned is that in asking someone with the capacity to give for money, I am not asking to take something away from them. Instead, I am giving them a chance to do something with some of their money that they can feel very good about.
Raising money for our charter schools began as an entirely different matter. We hired a fundraiser who didn’t raise any funds. We talked with consultants who told us it would be easy to raise several million dollars. We simply first needed to get one donation of half a million, two of a quarter of a million, and then ten of fifty thousand. Then, they said, the rest would be easy. They called it the fund-raising pyramid. But we didn’t know anyone then who would contribute fifty grand. We were stymied.
Fortunately, for a number of years, we didn’t actually need to raise money, but as our schools grew and we needed additional facilities, the need to raise money became critical. Then the idea arose. We would go back to the malas. Over the years, I had played with different malas, as long as the malas came in multiple of 18 beads and the values of the beads were multiples of $108, the number of Buddhist gates to enlightenment, although you shouldn’t ask me to name them. A 72-bead mala, with each small bead valued at $5,400 and a large bead for $10,800 would get around $400 thousand. That was a start on the $2.1 million goal which we set. This took face-to-face asks, and I held my breath in the beginning. At the end of the first year, we were more than a third of the way to our goal. And a strange thing happened. Some high net-worth donors appeared. It took a lot of courage, more than I thought I had, the first time I pitched, “We can name a school for half a million or a program for $250 thousand.” By the end of a year and a half, we had raised over $900 thousand toward our goal, naming both our new school and a new program.
I wear the beads always and everywhere. I wear this 72-bead mala as a necklace. People ask about the beads and sometimes people respond by saying they would like to make a contribution.
People have made their malas out of different materials. I have always made mine from wooden beads, for many years hobby beads from Michaels and now they are ordered by our Chief of Staff Mary Cottingham from China on Amazon Prime. I have always burned names of donors on the beads with a craftsmen’s iron made for wood burning. The names become a decorative feature, and a reminder. Those who have contributed to the mala are with me at all times as we work to grow our network of charter schools. Part of my New Year’s challenge is to help others to learn to ask as well.
How do you do your first mala?
In the Zen Peacemaker version of the Buddhist precepts, we amplify the Non-Stealing Vow: “I will be satisfied with what I have. I will freely give, ask for, and accept what is needed.” Giving and asking are two sides of the same coin. Asking becomes easier and more authentic when we give. Give a bead, raise a bead. $5400 over three years translates into only $150 a month. If that is beyond your capacity, share a bead with a friend or colleague. Two people on a bead is only $75 a month; three on a bead only $50 a month.
Start asking. Raise a bead by raising your own small mala. 18 small beads at $216 for each and $1512 for the large bead. You will raise a $5400 bead. I’ll put your name on one of my beads. We will do this together.
Celebrate successes. In our fundraising practice, as in every part of school life, we celebrate successes, big and small. Small student successes. New charters. In our office at the school, Mary rings a small bell whenever we receive a donation to the schools. Big or small, the bell rings.
Thank donors. Expressing gratitude. Bowing. I Gassho when a check is handed to me. After the first street retreat, I wrote the story of my experience on the street and sent it with a note of gratitude to all who supported the first mala. I have continued to do that. Now several times a year I write letters to supporters of the education mala, bringing them up to date on what is happening with our schools and with our fundraising effort. I am grateful for their support. Even if they made their gift in a single check (many are making monthly or yearly payments), their support is being continually acknowledged in practice. I feel it. I want them to feel it.
Get started giving and asking. Make it personal. Peace in Zen arises when we let go of our attachments. None are more powerful than our attachments to money. To give and ask is to begin to free ourselves from these attachments and to put an end to suffering. Make this a joyous and giving New Year.