Like most of us in the fundraising field at the time (back when “fundraising” was two words), I stumbled into it. I was the writer, so I wrote the grant proposals and appeals. I was good at it, and since I wasn’t good at anything else that paid money, it became a full-time occupation.
In those days there were few women in the field. Today women outnumber men by about 3:1. But what has always been true — more so now than ever — is that women were more inclined toward charitable and philanthropic endeavors than men. Even in the early days, those of us in the business understood that if we wanted the real money, we needed to talk to the Alpha Woman — the mother, wife, or daughter. Sometimes we used the term “Present or Future Widow.” Sweet, innit?
Ten years into my career I find my way to an interview with the hiring partner of a consulting firm. A rare (at the time) female, she was about 15 years my senior, and had made her way up from secretary in a hospital development office to major gifts officer, then gone with the vice president for development when he left to create a consulting firm. Evidently she knew her shit.
We go over my unimpressive résumé rather casually, as she nibbles around the edges of the rind where personal and professional conjoin. I don’t get this then, but she is exploring whether or not I would be a “good fit” for the firm, and how potential donors and clients would react to me on a gut level — stuff between the lines of a C.V. This, too, is a characteristic of the fundraising business, which is often uncomfortably similar and degrading as a beauty contest.
It’s July, and despite the AC the room starts to heat up. I’m over-dressed (fundraisers compensate for their second-tier professional status with clothing and other shallow distractions), as is she. She invites me to get comfortable, and slips off her own suit jacket, leaving her in a white sleeveless shell that (I can’t help but notice) shows off a pair of generous blouse bunnies. I shed my jacket, loosen my tie, and undo two shirt buttons. I’m tempted to kick off my shoes, but my socks have holes.
Until now we are seated facing one another, her desk between us. Leaving the paperwork, she gets up, gestures to me that I should take a seat in a stuffed chair across the room while she settles into a loveseat to my right. She nonchalantly crosses her legs, revealing considerable nylon. Suddenly, it occurs to me that (a) she has a helluva great body, and (2) she wants me to know it.
She tells me that her firm has a niche that she describes as combining successful development processes with personal and financial counsel. They have a stable of dependable donors who rely on the firm to guide their giving, and a portfolio of non-profit agencies who enlist their counsel to secure charitable support. Most of the donors are the wives, former wives, and widows of financially successful husbands. “The widows are the lucky ones,” she tells me. “They outlived the husbands who ran around on them once they turned 40.
“Anybody off the street can match our nonprofit clients up with interested donors,” she says, dismissively. “It’s like fishing in as stocked pond — we make it as entertaining as we can knowing the outcome is certain. It’s what we do on the personal level that makes the difference. Why these lonely, lively, wealthy, and still attractive women come to us.”
As if there were any doubt by now — even to dumbshit me, who hadn’t yet morphed into the wise, sophisticated, and utterly charming man of the world you know me as today — what’s going on here, she sweeps her eyes over me from head to toe, undressing me as thoroughly as a pole dancer before the lights go out. “You clean up nice enough,” she doesn’t actually say, “but for this gig, I need to know you down and dirty.”
I go home, a bit stunned. I want to tell somebody about this, but don’t know who. I feel cheap, used, toyed with. And exposed! — strangers on the street take one look and size me up: Pimp! Ponce! Prostitute!
I am also horribly, thoroughly, out-of-my-head turned on. Sorry, but I am 32 years old, unattached, and obsessed with sex on a minute-by-minute schedule as a rutting goat. Do I want this debonair 45-year blonde with a knockout body and a world of experience to “audition” my bony ass for this gig? Check this box for yes, that one for hell yes.
Show time finally arrives: over the weekend in her apartment, where I pass with flying colors (and on that subject, she’s not a natural blonde). Afterwards, we repair to her study where she pours us both straight whisky and light post-coital cigarettes. Pulses still pumping, we eye each other frankly over the coffee table. She drags, exhales, smiles coyly.
“Cunnilingus consummates the deal,” she purrs.
It is the first time in my life I hear a woman pronounce the word “cunnilingus.” Maybe “consummates,” too, but well, who cares?
I observe that starting tonight, the terms of art we use in philanthropy — solicitation, charitable giving, major gifts, loyal donors, hot prospects, etc., will become double entendres. She solemnly nods her head.
I eventually ask — subtly — if the constituency I would, um, represent will be qualitatively similar to the just-completed transaction. “Not for me to judge,” she says. “You’re the one who fills out that report.” She licks her upper lip thoughtfully.” Stubs out her smoke, swallows her shot. “And I strongly recommend refreshing your data now and then for comparative purposes.”
This remark inspires an unscheduled encore performance, after which I wobble home, bowlegged.
Now let’s cut to the chase. In fact, I don’t accept the position (the job, that is.) This set-up sounds like the stuff of fantasy or a porn flick, but the reality of servicing a senior clientele rather dashes the dream. I wouldn’t last. I might not even deliver. A prostitute can’t afford to be shallow or picky, I guess.
But consider how this dovetails in the context of the “Me Too” movement. Look at the rungs of the ladder I’d need to ascend to get into (and remain in) the lofty realm of high-end philanthropy. Is it substantially different from the harrowing experiences we’re hearing from young, beautiful models and actresses trying to break into show business? When you see the Beautiful People at fundraising galas, fabulous in their gowns and formal ware, celebrities among the commoners who work all year to arrange the event, do you imagine the sordid backdrop that made it possible? Forget the casting couch –we have the donor divan!
On the one hand, we’re talking about raising money to cure cancer, feed starving people, underwrite critical research, bolster education, etc. Hardly the pursuits of lusty libertines. On the other hand, we’re talking power and money, which changes everything every time.
True, nobody forced themselves on me or made unwelcome advances. I wasn’t pawed or groped or made to watch anybody whacking off in a parlor palm. Nor did I ever sense even for a minute that walking away would impact, let alone ruin, my career. These are major departures from the harrowing Me-Too tales told today.
When I call my contact to decline her offer she sounds neither surprised nor disappointed; she handles it professionally and business-like. As do I, I hope. Neither of us suggests a further rendezvous, and in fact, I never see her again: she doesn’t attend any of the meetings or conferences conducted by local or national professional associations. Closest encounter: years later, I bump into a colleague who says he’d worked for the company briefly as a researcher. “I saw her around the office maybe three times in a year,” he recalls. “We’d say hello. That’s it. Tell you the truth, I never quite figured out how that agency found clients, made money, or what they did all day.” I don’t enlighten him.
In 1985, before I decide to move to Florida, a search for the company and its principals reveals nary a trace. I even make a few calls, including several to non-profits that had at one time retained their services, and nobody remembers anything. Even the contact who got me the audition (interview) doesn’t know what happened to them. “There was always something kind of fishy about that outfit,” she tells me. “In fact, that’s why I thought you’d be a good fit.”
Fishy. Let’s leave it there.