Thursday, March 21, 2013
When I worked for fundraisers in Los Angeles, they sometimes referred to "The Ask." That is, the part of the conversation where you request money or other assistance.
Wherever we find ourselves, we sometimes have to ask people for things. My son asks me for treats, or for toys that have been taken away from him as punishment. At work, I've been asking permission to borrow props to use in plays and other kinds of help. In order to buy the house she loved, my wife had to walk into banks and ask for a loan. In yesterday's mail, I received a letter from the Kwan Um School of Zen asking for $1,000 donations toward a monument for Zen Master Seung Sahn. People who live on the streets (and don't have a thousand bucks to their names) seek help regularly, from institutions to businesses to strangers walking by.
The Buddha and his disciples practiced begging as a personal discipline. Most of them came from privileged backgrounds, so it must have been a strange and vulnerable experience for them to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, and open themselves up to rejection. The thing about The Ask is, you might be told no. You might be told to "get a job" or just ignored as if you weren't there. You might even be spat upon.
One of the fundraisers for whom I worked was named Kathy. Kathy spent a long time -- years -- developing personal relationships with regular donors. She knew the names of their children and their grandchildren, where they were going to school. She treated donors like honored friends, showed them respect and gratitude and personal interest. It worked rather well. She did not always solicit them, but when it came to The Ask, she would lighten it up with some humor. She would say, "How about a million dollars? That would be fine. But not a penny more!"
After morning practice at Deming Zen Center today, Sherry told me about a man who had approached her on Spruce Street after yoga practice. His version of The Ask was: "Hey, do you have a couple of twenties you could spare?" When she laughed, he was offended.
It reminded me of Kathy's "big ask," which nearly always prompted laughter.
And yet there was one day -- and I actually overheard Kathy's part of this conversation, which took place over her telephone -- when Kathy made her usual request for a million dollars and the donor she was talking to said, "You know what? Yes. I'm ready to do that." And she was serious. Kathy asked for a million dollars and somebody said yes.
You never know.
[Image: the donation box at Deming Zen Center. How about a million dollars? But not a penny more, really.]