Here’s a little holiday surprise for you, courtesy of my friend, movie buff, and fundraiser extraordinaire, Rob Blizard. I suspect many of us will be watching some old movies on the holiday break, and Rob gives you his take on a few of them with fundraising at the core of their plots. Given the active role that many celebrities play in fundraising today, I wonder what changes would be made to these stories if the films were remade today. What do you think about Hollywood’s portrayal of fundraising? Share your thoughts in the comments.
A Guest Post by Rob Blizard
When I first moved from the program side to the planned giving office of the charity at which I had my first professional experience in nonprofit fundraising, one of my co-workers made a not-funny joke over drinks about me being a “money whore.” (What else would one be a whore for?) On the occasion of a special group dinner, a boorish guest, while eating his dinner for which I’d paid, made a lead-balloon crack about my fundraising job being like prostitution. Not funny, either.
Maybe some of you have experienced such slams about being a development professional. However, it’s not surprising that some people have such impressions of people actively engaged in raising money, even if it is for charitable causes. The less-than-favorable view of nonprofit fundraising rears its unattractive head even when we go to the cinema.
This concept hit home for me recently while watching one of my Netflix rental movies: THE SANDPIPER with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Released in 1965 at the height of Taylor-Burton box-office popularity and trading in on their infamy as headlining adulterers, THE SANDPIPER chronicles an extramarital affair between Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton), a man of the cloth heading up a religious school for boys near Big Sur, and Laura Reynolds (Taylor), a professed atheist who is also an unwed mother, artist, admitted former mistress of one of the school’s trustees and a sanitized Hollywood version of a hippie beatnik living, inexplicably, in a fabulous secluded, oceanfront home.
Three story lines travel through the movie—the illicit affair, the ultimate flying away of a baby sandpiper whose broken wing has been repaired, and a capital campaign to build a new chapel. The more Liz and Dick flout social custom and become intertwined, the healthier the bird becomes and the more the effort to raise funds for the new chapel is imperiled. Once Burton’s wife (Eva Marie Saint) finds out, the fundraising campaign and Burton’s career both come to a screeching halt.
“I’m no longer a man of the cloth,” he remorsefully tells his wife as they discuss his decision to step down from the school in the midst of public disgrace. “I’ve become a—fundraiser,” he says with disdain, as if that’s the diametric opposite from being holy on an imaginary goodness meter. Et voila, the love-of-money-is-the-root-of-all-evil contempt for fundraising is on display.
Although his wife tries to reassure him that all his resource development has made the difference between a good and mediocre school, Burton details his slide into moral failings. He mentions “overlooking a boy’s grades for a bribe called a contribution” and his willingness to engage in legal but immoral tax scams related to specific donations—ethical hazards that his philandering liaisons with Liz have emboldened him to rail about.
In fact, the issue of fundraising ethics is spotlighted in more than a single way. In one scene, a school trustee is talking with one of its donors about contributing a painting. Seems the painting has had two appraisals for very high amounts but apparently its true worth is considerably less. The script tells us that the IRS need only be concerned about the lesser of the two appraisals to substantiate the value of the gift, although a gentleman’s agreement ignores the inflated appraisals so that the donor can claim a high tax deduction.
In another scene, the same trustee challenges Burton’s announcement that he is going to change the campaign from one for a chapel (an option the Liz character doesn’t like) to a scholarship fund for gifted boys whose families cannot afford the school (an option that would please the violet-eyed temptress). The trustee retorts that the money has already been raised for a chapel and that donors may demand their money back.
As the exchange becomes heated, the trustee shouts, “I don’t raise money under false pretenses!” To which Burton replies with a strong comment about the trustee’s willingness to engage in “tax avoidance schemes.”
But the audience knows these nonprofit titans are peeved about more than just the direction of the capital campaign. No, this little game of ethics-in-fundraising one-upmanship is really a squabble over a woman. The trustee not only knows about the Burton affair with Taylor, but also, in an only-in-Hollywood twist, once kept her as his own mistress in San Francisco, although she dumped him after he put her through art school. Pretty messy stuff for 1965.
Earlier, we see Burton playing golf with donors, one of whom tells him that if Burton can make a certain shot, he’ll give three grand to the fund. Of course, he misses. Later, he engages the woman with whom he’s having the affair to design the chapel’s stained glass windows; listens to his wife concede that she spent two hours with some female donor prospects who gave only $100 to the building fund; and lies to his wife by saying he is going on a three-day fundraising spree, which he instead spends romping with Liz in her beachfront pad. Donor visits indeed!
In one of the more interesting quotes associated with ethics and fundraising, Burton addresses his decision not to flunk a boy out because of his rich daddy’s potential largesse to the capital campaign. “If the contribution falls in the range of $2,000, then that quality of mercy that runs through my blood whenever money is mentioned will be strained once more to give the Rogers boy another chance,” declares Dr. Hewitt in a blithe tone that belies the self-knowledge of the wrongness of his act.
The scene is played for a smirk, but later Burton poignantly details how coming down on the wrong side of ethical qualms for years has gradually brought him to his current state as “keeper of the treasury”—and not necessarily God’s earthly crusader. He blames “acquiescing in a thousand little schemes” and “putting desire above duty and ambition above dignity.” Almost as if the cumulative effect changed him in a way he didn’t understand until after it happened. Certainly, a cautionary tale for any fundraiser.
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Like THE SANDPIPER, the 1947 Christmas classic THE BISHOP’S WIFE positions raising money for a new but misguided building as positively sinful. Yet, at heart, this gem is a movie almost completely about philanthropy and its role and purpose. In fact, the film concludes with David Niven as the bishop extolling the virtues of giving gifts to the poor and helping the downtrodden in a Christmas Eve sermon. His plea to parishioners to ask themselves WWJD when giving at the holidays must have been a powerful message right after World War II, when much of the world was recovering from the ravages of the enormous conflict that cost millions of lives and resulted in widespread deprivation.
Arriving at this point of encouraging gifts to the needy, however, is a circuitous route for Niven, who is visited by ice-skating, history-loving, tree-decorating angel (yes, angel) Cary Grant after pleading with God for guidance in grappling with the difficulties of raising $4 million for a new cathedral. Grant, who carries on a hands-off affair with Niven’s wife Loretta Young for much of the flick, enables Niven to see insights about his capital campaign that ultimately change the bishop’s approach.
At the movie’s outset, we meet Young crying while shopping for a Christmas tree because her husband has become too busy with the capital campaign that has made Niven “terribly tired and worried.” A family friend complains that the bishop no longer has time for “riff-raff like me” but instead “consults with the vulgar rich” like a Mrs. Hamilton, played delightfully by Gladys Cooper, who appeared as a slew of hateful bluebloods during her film career.
Mrs. Hamilton, we learn, has promised $1 million to the campaign and, illustrating a fundraiser’s ethical dilemma, tells the bishop exactly how to build the new chapel. This includes the addition of a special George B. Hamilton Memorial Chapel commemorating her late husband with conspicuous signage and a stained glass window in which one of the saints is to look like the dearly departed Mr. Hamilton. Despite the bishop’s protestations against such aggrandizement and fighting what he knows to be wrong, Mrs. Hamilton reminds him that she was responsible for his career advancement.
“You will build this cathedral as I want it or not at all,” she emphatically threatens Niven, who later tells his wife that he is being “strangled by her purse strings” as he—just like we would do—sets up a variety of donor visits and committee meetings in December to take advantage of the Yuletide giving spirit.
Then, nonprofit fundraisers will be treated to what amounts to a tale of two donor visits. The first is from Niven, who readily agrees to frosty Mrs. Hamilton’s beyond-the-pale construction requests to alleviate his stress and get that $1 million check before the holiday. But, in a case of comic divine intervention, he becomes stuck to his chair and is unable to leave her home, upsetting all concerned.
Later, the angel Grant calls on Mrs. Hamilton. He cuts through her ice-encrusted outer layer by discussing her past, learning she never really loved the dead husband she is so intent on memorializing. Heaven’s intermediary ends up with the doyenne in tears but aglow with holiday cheer while suddenly insisting everyone call her by her first name. She even terms her visit with Grant “the greatest spiritual experience of my life,” abandons her unyielding demands, and announces she will give her money to the indigent with Niven directing the disbursal of funds. It’s the rush of good feelings caused by philanthropy of which fundraisers have heard much.
Throughout the film are examples of other giving, including Young donating to the collection pot of a bell-ringing Santa on the city street and a lowly, aging professor donating a valuable Roman coin. No surprise that the final sermon in the movie focuses on gifts—not Christmas presents but “all the shining gifts that make peace on Earth,” meaning truly philanthropic gifts to help those who truly need help. The perfect case statement for philanthropy as an industry!
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Meanwhile, in 1960’s ELMER GANTRY, based on a novel by famed muckraker Sinclair Lewis and starring Burt Lancaster in his Oscar-winning role, a certain style of religious fundraising comes under harsh indictment. This form of nonprofit fundraising is painted by Lewis as deeply contemptible, so much so that the film, issued prior to our current rating system, contains an outdated warning at the beginning urging that “impressionable” children not be allowed to see the movie.
The film opens in a smoky Midwestern speakeasy of “fine bourbon and fast women” on Christmas Eve during the 1920s. Gantry, a traveling salesman, is drunk and cavorting with a motley crew when a “sister” from what appears to be the Salvation Army goes from table to table requesting donations without luck. Lancaster grabs her tambourine and successfully delivers an impromptu sermon-like plea for funds. He then returns the donations to her—leaving him unable to pay his bar tab. The not-happy bartender says to him, “I oughta get myself a tambourine.”
Gantry eventually crosses paths with Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons as a spinsterish pre-TV televangelist. She is a traveling salesperson of another sort. In her case, she headlines a religious revival show going from one rural Midwestern locale to another under a big tent—and collecting lots of donations along the way.
Before a crowd under her large tent full of farmers, Sister Sharon ladles milk from a bucket and then makes a plea for contributions as her assistants hand out empty buckets to the crowd. “See how many of these dear people can match God’s bountiful gift with their own offering,” she purrs. “You darlings can’t make milk and God just won’t make money.”
When Gantry tries to approach Falconer, one of her helpers won’t let him by because Lancaster has no donation. Meanwhile, after the revival meeting, she coos over the evening’s take: “Four hundred and fifty converts out of 1,200 people. That’s a truth of a different kind!”
Later, Falconer hires Gantry, who we learn was thrown out of a seminary when he was younger, and he begins to share the stage with her. Together, they decide to hold their revival in the fictional city of Zenith, of which Lewis’s famous character of George Babbitt is a prominent citizen. Babbitt, a businessman, in one scene argues for Zenith to host the revival as he tries to persuade the city’s committee of church leaders, some of whom want no part of what they see as distasteful revivalism. But Babbitt reminds them how this traveling act can be good for business—including the financial benefit of fuller pews that will follow once Sister Sharon leaves town.
“Church attendance is falling off everywhere,” Babbitt professes. “Sister Falconer can fill your churches!”
And why is he going to such pains to convince them? Because Sister Sharon wants the city, including the churches, to dole out a $30,000 guarantee to secure her visit. The lone woman in a meeting of male town pillars, she argues why the up-front payment is necessary.
“Wouldn’t it be a much happier world if money was not the third arm of religion?” she asks the group. Then, she proceeds to share why her advance fee is so high. “My expenses are high enough to run a factory. I practically do run a factory,” she explains before breathlessly cataloging a list of her expenses. And, she also notes her contribution to the church committee of each town: “They expect it and they always get it.”
“Like it or not, we are in competition with the entertainment business,” one church leader opines. And another notes bingo, baseball games, and square dances as methods for securing funds for their houses of worship. Babbitt declares that is why Falconer’s revival (which a reporter in the film later lambastes as a “circus sideshow complete with freaks, magic, and rabble-rousing”) is just what the town needs: “It’s up to us to make a success out of Christianity, keep the churches full.”
“Christianity is a going concern. A successful international enterprise,” Babbitt says to this group of de facto nonprofit executives. “Now, if you boys don’t get the young people back into church…your church boards are going to find somebody else who will.”
Later in the movie, the reporter exposes a scandal about Lancaster and Shirley Jones (yes, Mother Partridge in her own Oscar-winning role). Here, she portrays a two-bit hooker and former preacher’s daughter who knew Elmer Gantry years before at the seminary from which he was bounced out and “rammed the fear of God into me.” The reporter’s front-page articles about the whole affair contain his commentary on ethical nonprofit fundraising:
“What qualifies someone to be a revivalist? Nothing, nothing at all. There is not one law in any state of the union protecting the public from the hysterical onslaught of revivalists. But the law does permit them to invest in tax-free property and collect money without accounting for how it is used.”
Following the damaging headlines, Sister Sharon rails against insinuations that she’s misused funds and town leader Babbitt is exposed for permitting gambling, prostitution and alcohol (during Prohibition) in real estate that he owns. Clearly, there was no second side to the story for Sinclair Lewis, who in ELMER GANTRY comes down hard on a revival industry that he depicts as a fundraising machine manipulating unwitting rural folk and classifying itself as a church for tax purposes to hide how donations are spent.
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On the lighter side, the 1977 soaper THE TURNING POINT, a behind-the-scenes story about professional ballet dancers starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, has fun with the company’s fundraising-obsessed CEO, Adelaide, played for laughs by Martha Scott.
The character, the movie tells us, founded what is now America’s top ballet company, which operates out of Lincoln Center. The Center’s windswept plaza later becomes the stage for once-rival dancers MacLaine and Bancroft to carry out their famous on-screen physical fight. When introduced, Adelaide tells us, “Had I understood 38 years ago what I was getting myself into, I’d have never started this bloody ballet company.”
“My company’s almost gone under five times,” Adelaide says to MacLaine’s younger daughter after a roadshow performance featuring the company’s aging grande dame Bancroft. The tour has stopped in Oklahoma, where MacLaine’s character moved decades ago after giving up ballet to marry and have children.
Referencing MacLaine, she tells the teen: “I want her and your father to introduce me to some rich oil folk…I have a ballet school to run and that always means half a dozen lumpy little girls with very rich daddies.”
“I know how to handle the rich,” Adelaide muses with a touch of braggadocio. “You give them hope. They give you money.”
Elsewhere in the family-versus-career film, when Adelaide is told that MacLaine’s older daughter has danced professionally in Houston and Santa Fe, she interjects in a complete non-sequitur to the conversation, “Lots of money in Santa Fe!”
And at the company’s annual Lincoln Center gala, when a very affluent-looking couple waves from a distance atop the escalator, Adelaide says sotto voce to her management sidekick as she waves back: “Oh, I love the Stewarts. They gave us $25,000 last year.”
Finally, when company leaders discuss MacLaine’s daughter (the “baby ballerina”) taking over the lead in “Sleeping Beauty” from Bancroft, Adelaide giddily enthuses: “Perfect. We’ll warm her up this season and she’ll warm up the box office next season.”
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Many nonprofits seek to work with celebrities to raise funds and the 1976 remake of A STAR IS BORN, Kris Kristofferson, starring as a has-been, substance-abusing rock star, shows just how dangerous such a strategy can be. Billed as a concert for the Indian Relief Fund, a concert fundraiser features Kristofferson and his band as the John Norman Howard Speedway. Launching into his signature tune “Watch Closely Now,” Howard, known for onstage tantrums and audience-displeasing behavior, decides to stop singing.
“You all just think you wanna hear that same old s—,” he tells the furious crowd. “This here’s a benefit for a good cause and just by being here you all deserve more than you’re getting. So, we’re fixing to do you all a favor.”
After telling his own still-shouting fans that they have “the corner on the ignorance market,” the aging rocker walks offstage and drags out his yet-to-be-discovered girlfriend, portrayed by Barbra Streisand in a 1970s afro. While the fans continue screaming angrily, he orders them to “shut the f— up” and introduces Babs, who, in a scene requiring a massive suspension of disbelief by the movie viewer, quiets the boisterous crowd by launching into a pop ditty, thus saving the day.
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So, yes, miracles can happen in charitable fundraising, even though the pursuit of nonprofit donations is often portrayed on celluloid as completely devoid of ethics or something less than wholesome. That said, it does make for some delightful drama—the price of which may be those snarky comments we hear when people find out how we make a living.
Rob Blizard is chief development officer at the Washington Animal Rescue League, a leading animal shelter in the nation’s capital. He also writes articles on nonprofit management and fundraising for different publications. Rob can be reached at email@example.com.