For this columnist, one of the greatest joys is interacting with people

NONPROFITS INC.

December 27, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Give or take a few, this is my 150th column for The Sun since spring of 1991, when it first appeared. Looking back, I'd like to share with readers some lessons I've learned as a columnist.

Addressing as important and broad a subject as philanthropy in under 750 words each week is a very, very sobering experience. I think of the story of Voltaire, who was commissioned to write a novel by a countess who wanted to give it as a birthday gift to a friend. Just prior to the deadline, Voltaire sent the finished novel to his benefactor, along with a note to this effect: My dear Countess, here is the novel I promised, in two volumes. If I had but more time, it would have been one.

Judging by the mail and calls I get in response to some of my columns, readers take the subject of philanthropy seriously. That, too, is sobering. A columnist doesn't report the news, he or she offers a singular perspective on news, events and what have you. Some of my opinions are not ones that are popular, or mainstream, and I regularly hear from readers who disagree with me. That humbling experience is both a joy and a frustration, but one that always keeps a columnist fresh.

Another lesson I've learned is to check facts, then check them again. I've been pulled up short more than once by astute readers who gleefully provide indisputable evidence of a fact I've gotten wrong.

There is one aspect of writing a column I regret, but haven't yet resolved. I often given advice on philanthropy practices, such as board development. I may cite state-of-the-art management practices at nonprofits throughout the United States. Or, I may report on emerging trends. Then, when I visit a solid, hard-working charity, a board member or staff apologizes that they are not living embodiments of all those practices. I usually feel lousy at that moment.

One thing I should emphasize more in my columns is that no

organization can change all at once. Change is a gradual, evolutionary process. I know that and you know that. We try different approaches; some work but most don't. And, you're trying these new practices at the same time you're raising money, dealing with a personnel problem, handling a public relations crisis, and the list goes on. So, don't apologize. We both know that you are working hard to make the quality of life better for all of us. Take what I say, add a good measure of columnists be damned, and then maybe you've got the makings of something to chew on.

Another lesson I've had reinforced over these years is how earnest people are in the nonprofit sector. I get calls asking for help, or debating a position I have taken, that reflect a true commitment to the highest ideals of service.

That is perhaps the greatest joy of being a columnist. I get to interact with some of the finest people I know, both nonprofit employees and their for-profit volunteers and donors. Too often we think of nonprofits in terms of staff that run the daily operations. But nonprofits thrive at the hands of those wonderful volunteers and donors who provide the vision, leadership and support. I think of the corporate executives who serve on boards, the retired couples who put in a few hours a week staffing the phone lines, or the floor managers at the manufacturing plant that rally the troops for our local United Way.

Another lesson that comes to mind is that you can't please everyone all the time. There are occasions when a columnist goes out on a limb and alienates some readers. That comes with the territory. I've taken controversial positions from time to time. My hope is that it has generated debate, soul searching and maybe a willingness to look at more creative solutions to issues of common concern. At least I hope that's the case.

Finally, Id like to thank each and every one of you loyal readers. Best wishes for a successful 1994. It's a tough world out there, and you folks are making it happen for the rest of us, every day.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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