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Five Hours at 1600

This is a belated, and fairly impressionistic report to Possibly Interested Persons on my excursion to the first-ever White House conference on philanthropy. If you’ve had serious time in that building, this will be ho-hum. But if, like me, you can count your time there in minutes, this may be something to read.

The President and Mrs. Clinton request the pleasure…

The invite came first by phone, someone who sounded about 19 saying that the President and Mrs. Clinton would appreciate my attendance at a White House conference the following week. Resisting the temptation to say, “Yeah, right. Who is this?” I asked if it would be in the Executive Office Building. “No, ma’am. You will be meeting in the East Room.”

That is not a big room and it’s definitely inside the White House, not across the street in the Executive Office Building, where we’ve gone to so-called White House meetings. When he said the First Lady and the President would personally preside over the discussion, he definitely had my attention. I said I’d look into booking a ticket. (If Oprah calls, the plane ticket to Chicago and the hotel are part of the invitation; when the White House calls, you’re on your own.)

The next day the hand-addressed, engraved invitation arrives, presidential seal and all. I try to book a last-minute seat to DC from Charlotte, where I’m already scheduled into the national Character Education Partnership conference and giving a speech the day after the White House meeting.

Bummer. It’s normally a cheap flight—48 minutes’ air-time—but at this late date, the price is almost seven hundred bucks. I realize I’m not going. But we’ve been asked to the table. I should go. I put out an email to a couple of our online fund-raising companies asking for help; one replies that they’re working on it, and I give a tentative Yes to the White House.

Making some research calls, I find out that only 150 people are invited, that there are ancillary conferences all over DC (invitations come in for one on E-philanthropy and another about kids and giving, at the Corporation for National Service) and there are satellite downloads from the White House to locations across the country. It’s looking more and more important to be in the room; I book the hideously expensive flight, betting we’ll be able to pay for it, muttering about airline de-regulation.

Getting There

My wake-up call in Charlotte is for five AM. I put on the power suit, load my one pair of high heels and a lot of business cards into my shoulder bag and set out for the airport in the dark. At National Airport, I head for the Metro station. A Metro guide sees me studying the system map and says, “Where you going, the White House?” Like a lot of people go there by subway? He shows me the route and I do this leg of the journey underground.

I’m at the E-philanthropy meeting across the street from the White House just long enough to hear the head of charitableway.com, one of our online partners, speak, and to talk with the head of guidestar.com, the site where our financial statements are available to searchers. Then I head across the park to 1600.

At the White House

Finding the right gate and doing the security check-in, I link up with a fund raiser from L.A. and a philanthropist from Mississippi. None of us is quite sure why we’re here. After my bag goes through the x-ray machine, I put on the high heels and the three of us head up the broad stairs into a swell of live music. As we turn at the top of the stairs, we see a red-coated Marine Band playing in the Entrance Hall. This is a very big deal.

Nonmusical Marines, many of them women, shepherd arriving conferees into the State Dining Room, where a buffet breakfast is laid out down the center of the room, complete with the ormolu centerpieces that go back to Jefferson’s love of French imports. I’m not hungry, but know my brain will work better if I ingest some protein, so I go for the roulade and the salmon. I can report that the First Cook is quite good.

This room and the adjoining ones are full of both familiar faces and unknown ones and everyone is, I suspect, wondering who they should talk to. Nametags would be undignified, so there’s much introducing and explaining going on. I’m working my way along when I suddenly get hugged—by Giraffe Board member and ace fund raiser Holly Redell. Our mothers are, we agree, thrilled that we are here. So are we.

The State Dining Room, the Red, the Blue and the Green rooms are all open and usable--no silk ropes keeping the tourists off the furniture. I’m tempted to sit--high heels are the pits--but I keep moving and meeting, doing my job, a bright red giraffe folder sticking conspicuously out of my shoulder bag. The rooms are buzzing quite literally; people are keyed up—no matter how sophisticated they are, they’re walking around in our national history and they know it.

My favorite spot, where Jefferson’s portrait hangs next to a window that frames a view of his monument, doesn’t work today; the vista is obscured by a big white tent that’s been set up for a concert on the lawn. It’s hard not to smile, moving about under the gazes of all those faces from our history books. And to wonder what it would have been like to work in this place--I had a job offer here in ‘64 that didn’t come to pass. Ah, the-path-not-taken.

A reporter from a business magazine scribbles notes when I tell him about an all-women investment company in Seattle that’s doing great work. An advocate for the Pine Ridge reservation gives me a folder on their situation. Our first fund-raising consultant from our New York days re-introduces himself. A favorite foundation executive promises to stop by the Giraffe office.

Marines are circulating and asking--with no possibility of a negative response--“Would you step this way please?” People move back out into the broad Cross Hall, where the band is playing show tunes. The entire noisy assemblage is moved slowly to the East Room and directed into little gold chairs set in arcs facing a dais. When the musical chairs game stops, I’m in a back row, with other attendees possibly feeling as much of an “Oh damn” as I am. It’s going to be hard to see what’s going on, even though the room isn’t large. Hmm, can I get up and move somewhere else? Nope. Every chair is filled. Luck of the draw. At least the guy in front of me isn’t very tall, and Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington are in our corner--not bad company.

Hail to the chief

The decibel level is high as seatmates get acquainted all over the room; I’m between two heavy-duty foundation execs and we all make small talk and look through the White House folders on our chairs. Ah good. There’s a note pad with “The White House” at the top of every page—I’ll have fun with that back at the office. A far-too-show-bizzy voice on the sound system (like one of those guys at Disneyland) says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and the First Lady.” Out in the hall the band strikes up Hail to the Chief. No matter how many times you’ve heard it played or even what you think of the incumbent, those notes, in that place, will get to you. Since everyone’s standing, I can’t see much, but the sound is great. When everyone clatters and rumbles back into the chairs as the First Couple joins the panel on the dais, I realize that Clinton is, unbelievably, wearing a yellow print tie. (Maybe it wasn’t The yellow tie, but wouldn’t you think he’d have shredded any and all yellow ties in his closet?)

This sets off a wonderment that anyone can deal with a room so filled with thinking heads, each racing along processing all that they know or think they know about you. A decade’s worth of endless, inescapable images and words by and about these two people must be racing through all these minds, creating enormous background static, whether or not it surfaces. Which it probably won’t--we are, after all, guests.

Hillary opens the proceedings

Rodham-Clinton apologizes to all those who did not get invitations. This, she tells us, is the most sought-after invitation she can remember at the White House. ”Everyone wanted to come.” She assures those watching via satellite that the room is packed.

She talks about what could be done with just a 1% increase in giving—an amazing number of ills and problems could be assuaged. The point of the conference is for the White House to take the lead in inspiring people to come up with that increased percentage. She introduces the President, while I wonder what it’s like to refer to your husband as “the President.”

What the POTUS said

He calls this conference one of her best ideas ever, and gets a tight little smile from her. He does his easy, charming, fact-dropping thing, talking about the importance of achieving that 1% increase, quoting de Toqueville, looking to new possibilities of fundraising on the Internet, calling universal Internet access the next great communication goal. He does self-deprecation well, describing himself as technologically challenged and totally amazed by a 27-year-old Silicon Valley millionaire who’s told him universal Internet access could be achieved by gifts of “founders’ stock, whatever that is.” The mystery of founders’ stock becomes a good laugh line throughout the rest of the conference.

He gets a good response from the room when he calls for erasing Third World debt, citing support by the Pope and Bono as evidence that there’s a very large tent for the idea. He urges people to look to the Internet as a new avenue for philanthropy. (He’s hip to this new thing—this is good). And to remember that volunteering time counts as philanthropy. (Ah, so that’s why I’m here. The Giraffe Project gets people activated and involved in service). He wonders if retiring Boomers, a prosperous generation, will be good givers of time and money. He announces that he’s appointed an inter-agency task force to look into creating that 1% increase in giving. “This,” says the POTUS, “is a big deal.”

Conference speakers speak

The first panelist, a foundation president, gets a huge laugh by describing the start of philanthropy in this country as the Indians’ gifts to the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving, “which turned out not to be in their long-term self interest.” Nevertheless, he suggests Thanksgiving Day be designated National Giving Day, to promote philanthropy.

Rodham Clinton calls on nonprofit stars seeded throughout the audience, who describe giving by Jews, African Americans, Latinos, women, and kids. A pollster on the panel reports that Generation X is more likely to give time than money, wanting to be personally involved. He advises nonprofits to ask people to give time before asking for checks, recommending place-of-work approaches to them. Fundraising has changed, says he. “Tear up the old playbook.”

A nineteen-year-old rocker reports on his two-week-old foundation to promote music classes in public schools. Both HRC and WJC are laughing-out-loud pleased when the kid notes that he doesn’t normally wear a suit and that the audience is not the demographic he’s used to.

A foundation executive advocates for service learning in every grade for every kid, because early training means lifelong giving. HRC agrees emphatically, which is good to see.

A teenager represents the morning’s Corporation for National Service conference—the kids want a Secretary of Youth in the Cabinet, a Senate committee on service, more media coverage of kids’ positive actions, youth representation in the dispensing of grants, and service integrated into all school curricula.

The co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reports that they will sponsor a new initiative on kids’ philanthropy, including a conference on the subject.

The Girl Scouts have a new merit badge—for philanthropy.

Nothing startling is being said, mostly people witnessing good stuff, calling for more good stuff. It’s best behavior time.

Every time people talk about needing to boost the percentage of giving, I want someone to remember Independent Sector’s national Give Five campaign. Worked for us. John and I have given away five percent of our intake ever since. Instead of looking for a new idea, why aren’t we revisiting good old ones?

Rodham-Clinton is a masterful chair, commenting, summarizing, adding savvy information--she has clearly done her homework, as when she notes the difficulty nonprofits have finding grants to pay the rent and make payroll, the unglamorous stuff that makes the programs possible. Every nonprofit rep in the room has to have been pleased that she brought up this core reality of fundraising.

Cyber moguls take the stage

A second panel moves in, Silicon Valley types, Steve Case of AOL; Kevin Fong, a Valley venture capitalist; and Catherine Muther, a computer millionaire who now has started the “Three Guineas Fund” to assist women entrepreneurs. Case opines that the Internet fundraising sites won’t instill the urge to give in people, the technology just makes giving easier. Fong describes new givers as giving the way they work—ready for risktaking, but demanding accountability, and wanting to be involved in the action rather than just writing checks. Muther describes giving by her peers as “philanthropy with attitude” and warns that these new givers want to be involved in the uses that are made of their money--they’ve come out of a team culture that’s transformed business, they don’t respect hierarchies, and they expect to stay at the table. They’re also harder-nosed about performance. These are not your father’s donors.

Clinton sums up, and leaves

The POTUS talks about making philanthropy part of corporate missions. He notes that money seekers are flocking to Silicon Valley for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Giving the government its due he notes that Arkansas has had microloans ever since he and Hillary read about the microloan pioneer, Muhammad Yunus (a Giraffe), and that the federal AID program has now made over 2 million microloans, mostly to women. He wants the federal government to hold its position on banks’ obligation to re-invest in their communities, but mostly he wants attention paid to the places that the current prosperity has passed over. These people are on his mind, he reports, every night of his life. With that emotional exit line, he’s outa there.

The mike circulates …

Lou Katz of the New Jersey Nets talks about the team’s decision to turn its profits over to kids in Camden and Newark, two of the places where US prosperity certainly isn’t visible.

The head of the United Way warns that giving to human services is down despite the soaring economy. Rodham-Clinton confirms this and speaks eloquently about the importance of these basic services.

Someone describes a Millennium Trust—a program in which people donate their last hour’s salary of 1999 to a community foundation.

The head of the CS Mott Foundation notes that big outfits like his have to figure out how to “get to Main Street” or they’ll just be “horses’ asses, distant, aloof and arrogant.”

A high point for me comes when the hand mike goes to Brian O’Connell, the former head of Independent Sector and one of the last great gents in America. He makes an impassioned statement about “active citizenship” as the broader picture of what giving in a democracy has to be if democracy is to survive, and about the necessity of making training for real citizenship part of our educational system. I’m tempted to stand up and cheer.

HRC says that her travels abroad have helped her realize how American voluntarism and personal philanthropy are, and how important acting for the common good and creating a civil society are as a democratic model for the world.

Go Brian, Go Hillary! The current and future health of the body politic are what’s at stake here.

…but not to me

I’ve had my hand up since Rodham-Clinton opened the discussion to the floor and the time is getting late. She makes eye contact with me and says, “Yes, you in the back.” Here comes the mike, it’s right in front of me and a hand reaches across me and takes it. I have an instant flash of people fighting over a McGuire homerun ball. But this is the East Room, not Wrigley Field—and the person standing to speak is bigger than I am, physically and philanthropically. I don’t really hear what she has to say, I’m so stunned. But I’m sure it isn’t as pertinent as what I wanted to put forth.

I would have said that the Chronicle of Philanthropy had quoted a prediction that the conference would be “nice people saying nice things” and none of it would amount to anything. I thought we should mess up that prediction by saying something un-nice to Congress--namely that they must give up the insane idea that nonprofits can take on any more of the basic services they keep trying to dump on this sector.

The falling tide of federal dollars lowers all boats--nonprofits who have to fill in for cancelled Federal assistance programs are barely able to cope, and other groups suffer fundraising crises when donors and foundations rightfully direct more dollars to the overwhelmed human-service providers. Those of us doing long-term, societal-change work, like character education and service-learning, must and do go to the back of the philanthropic queue.

To avoid dying back there, some of us are getting very creative--learning to market our goods and services entrepreneurially and signing onto the new Internet fundraising sites, in the hope that some of these cyberdonors will understand the importance of long-term programs. Some of us will survive and keep the work going; some of us won’t.

A lot of us won’t make it if Congress doesn’t find the wisdom and the courage to stop dumping federal responsibilities onto this overburdened sector. “Sticking their necks out” is what’s needed.

Nobody said anything like that, and the meeting adjourned.

Hell no we won’t go

People are milling and talking, Marines are saying, “This way please,” but This way is the door out of the building. Not so fast, fellas. The conversation has barely begun. Now that we know who people are, we have things to say to each other. And Rodham- Clinton is in the main aisle, surrounded by people who have more to say to her. I join them and see, past Hillary’s nose, Giraffe Jason Crowe, a philanthropist who’s all of 13. We mouth hellos and then I have my few seconds to tell her that the Giraffe Heroes Program is bringing service-learning and active citizenship to kids in 46 states and to give her my card. I find Jason back on the fringe of the group, about to leave, despondent that he’s not going to get through these bodies and talk to her. In best motherly style I hold onto his jacket and edge him through the grownups to the front and his moment with the First Lady of his country.

Out in the Main Hall a lone band member is playing piano. As I pass, I tell him my granddad played cornet in John Philip Souza’s Marine Band. He seems so delighted, I’ve since sent the bandmaster a picture of said grandfather, in uniform, cornet in hand.

Chanel-suited Muffies, presumably from the First Lady’s staff, hand each conferee a take-away package of reports and statistics, and direct me to the loo, which is discreetly unmarked.

Back in the real world

Outside, on the sidewalk where tourists and other mortals abound, there’s Jason, bummed because he’s got the wrong backpack and whoever’s got his has all the White House paper napkins he’d stashed for his buds back in Indiana.

There’s time before the flight back to Charlotte, so I do my usual and head for a hotel lobby where there are phones, newspapers and comfy chairs. I make follow up notes—must get a packet on the Giraffe Heroes Program to HRC, follow up on all the people I’ve talked to and wanted to talk to, offer whatever help the Project can offer to make sure something comes of this effort. With little more than a year to go for this Administration, and a Presidency with such damaged credibility, the prospects for results seem slim. But it’s worth a shot.

In the hotel bar, another power-suited woman picks up her drink and heads to my table. “You were at that meeting too, weren’t you.” We settle in to compare impressions—a scholar on public philanthropy, her comments are funny and caustic. But we agree that it doesn’t much matter. The real summing up is, “Holy shit, we just spent five hours in the White House.”

Which actually didn’t hold a candle to “Breakfast with Mandela.” I kid you not, it really happened and I hope it doesn’t take me as long to write up that stunning event as it has to get these notes together.

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