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January 8, 2020

What I learned from my personal fundraising campaign for Reading Partners

It is wonderful.
It is disappointing.
It is surprising.
It is not surprising.
It changes your point of view about people.
It reinforces your point of view about people.
It makes you cry (happy).
It makes you cry (sad).
It is for you. No, it is not.
It is for the kids.
It is worth it.

Every week, I show up at PS 175 at 134th Street in Harlem, ready to wrangle second- through fourth-graders in their reading journeys. Sometimes they’re cheery, sometimes recalcitrant. Always, I know they need me and deep in their hearts, they’re happy to get me and my fellow tutors for 45 minutes of one-on-one attention with a side of learning thrown in. When I’m up in the library under the helpful guidance of Ms. Suzan (the site coordinator), we tackle phonetic basics, word analysis, and vocabulary, leading to understanding themes, characters, fact organization. In essence, learning to read, then reading to learn—all via the sequential lessons stacked in bins next to each child’s progress folders.

All of this takes time. And commitment. And money.


Last year was a big year for me. Twenty years of health after a bad year of cancer. So, I decided to mark the event by celebrating with a fundraiser for Reading Partners. How prophetic that my anniversary matched Reading Partners’ 20th anniversary. I had never asked my friends, family or colleagues for money before, but I’ve participated in countless fundraisers, galas, campaigns over the years, all for good causes that have meaning to the folks sponsoring them. Now would be my turn to ask for their participation.

I reached out to 200 people, friends, good friends, family, colleagues. We set a goal to raise $25,000.

My business partner brainstormed copy and headlines for the letters I’d send. My sister, the professor, edited. My niece, a professional fundraiser, gave me “do’s and don’ts” and a lot of encouragement to make my ask. My husband sent notes to his friends and a few colleagues. Reading Partners created a personalized fundraising page. My daughter corrected my Excel sheets. My real estate agent taught me how to use Mail Chimp.

And I worked up the nerve to do the ask via a series of emails: “Please celebrate my 20 years of health with a donation honoring Reading Partners’ 20th anniversary!” I sent the first batch via Mail Chimp and religiously (compulsively?) checked results on who opened the emails, who didn’t, which addresses bounced back, and ultimately who made a contribution. (And who didn’t).

When the donations were shown online, by name, I was buoyed emotionally. The most important people in my life stepped up immediately and with gusto. They called to tell me how thrilled they were to participate; they joined in my joy in being still “here” and able to live a good life, 20 years after they saw me so sick.

They gave big. I wrote thank you notes (handwritten if I had a mailing address, or email if I didn’t) and made thank you calls. I posted thank you’s on Facebook and Instagram stories and photos, and included my fundraising page link on every email and social media post. A day that didn’t show a new donation was a bummer.

After three weeks, I culled my list and sent emails directly to those who had not yet contributed.  I know how people get busy, they plan to give but sometimes forget, or emails from distribution lists can wind up in SPAM, so I reached out to this group directly and individually. Again, I checked off responses and contributions on my Excel sheet. Then, three weeks later, I sent a last round of personalized emails to the stragglers.

I know we can’t (and should not) count other people’s money, but I had high hopes of reaching my $25,000 goal. Some people, casual friends, long ago colleagues, elementary school friends who saw my Facebook posts, former clients of my husband, surprised me with their generosity.  Friends of my sister; friends of my daughter. My ex-husband donated. Most of my book club. And the finance guys (all guys! but we’ll deal with that another time) were stupendous.

Fundraising page

Some people gave more than I could have imagined; some gave less than I expected. All my grandchildren (age 2-18) gave individually. One friend brought the fundraiser to her family fund and they decided to donate in honor of her late father; she blew me away with their unexpectedly large donation. Her comment: “My dad would have loved the idea.” Almost all the people I asked showed up with a meaningful contribution.

And a handful of key people were conspicuously silent. No response at all. That’s the thing about fundraising: sometimes it is painful and you may be disappointed by what you learn about a few people. But their choices don’t diminish the respect and gratitude I feel for all the others who did chime in with words and contributions.

Four months later, I reflect back on the fundraising process as well as the results. It is hard to ask for money; it is hard to say, “I know this isn’t ‘your’ cause, but it is mine, and please do this for me.” It is hard to put yourself on the line, and in some ways, the “ask” feels like a referendum on your relationships. Maybe it is, and maybe that’s a good lesson.

Was this fundraising program the right thing to do? Absolutely.

Did it work? Absolutely. We made… and passed our goal.

Do I feel more committed to Reading Partners? Also, absolutely.

Would I encourage others to do their own campaign? Yes, yes, yes.

As I write this, I’m wrapping up a few books for my students for their winter holiday break. Will they read them? I’m hopeful.  My fundraising campaign added to that hope. And clarified how grateful I am for all the big-hearted people in my life who cared enough to make a donation – for me, and for the kids.

I’m blessed to be a reading partner.

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