article

05.11.09

Buddy, Can You Spare Three Million?

Sure, philanthropy was easier when the economy was stronger, Bette Midler writes, but there are still ways to do fundraisers without breaking the bank. Spam Wellington, anyone?

There's a lesson that I learned,
A long long time ago
Like every girl who's working
In the business we call "Show"

It's a rule I live by,
And Baby, so should you,
That if the Show it must go on
The Showgirl goes on too!!

Well, this Showgirl has been “going on” for about a year in the great city of Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. During that year, which has been challenging for all Americans, I find myself in the enviable position of having a great gig, where I am surrounded by the finest musicians, wonderful singers, and of course, the most beautiful chorus line in the whole town.

This delirium is good for 20 weeks a year. I spend the rest of the year fundraising for my environmental organization, New York Restoration Project, founded 14 years ago in response to what I saw as appalling conditions in most parks—other than Central Park—in the greatest city in the world. We have worked long and hard to clean and green New York, building parks, and looking after 60 community gardens that we saved from the wrecking ball 10 (I can't believe it!) years ago... and raising general awareness about the beauty and importance of a clean and healthy environment.

Why hire buff, good-looking, expensive actor/model/waiters when less attractive, older servers will do? I’ve been known to hire waiters whose last supper was the Last Supper.

I don't know about you, but I lived through the ‘70s in New York and it was not pretty. Fast-food and disposable packaging had become incredibly popular and people were disposing of that packaging in the easiest way possible: They were throwing it on the street. Litter was an enormous problem, which only became worse over the next 20 years. By the time I moved back in the early ‘90s, our fabulous city was buried under a sea of garbage. It broke my heart.

I’d always been an expert at picking up trash, as anyone who’s ever seen my act can tell you, and that’s how NYRP began. Long before we planted our first tree or dedicated our first garden, we handled as much trash as a security guard on the Jerry Springer show!

In the 14 years that followed we have made a difference in more underserved neighborhoods than I have the space to mention. We revived fabulous Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan and opened our beautiful New Leaf Café in what had been a neglected eyesore. We designed and built the incredible Swindler Cove Park, which sits at the top of Harlem River Drive. Once a dump site, it is now a beautiful two-acre park complete with a children’s garden and the magnificent Peter Jay Sharp boathouse—the first boathouse on the Harlem River in over 100 years. We are now in the process of planting one million trees throughout New York City, a project that will produce cleaner air, natural shade, and a more beautiful environment for all citizens.

Sure, fundraising was easier when the economy was stronger but I have absolutely no intention of letting the good work we and all the other greening groups here in town have done to allow New York City to slide back to its former hideous and shameful nadir of the ‘70s. I was raised by parents who lived through the Depression and I know how to stretch a dollar tighter than Rush Limbaugh’s thong. To this end, I have always struggled valiantly to wring every last bit of value from every donated dollar. NYRP does two fundraisers a year, a Spring Picnic (coming up on May 19) and in the fall, we throw the best Halloween party in town, called “Hulaween,” in honor of my Hawaiian roots... and believe me when I tell you, we get our money's worth, and so does the crowd!

Recently I read an article in The New York Times titled “ Trading Filet Mignon for Chicken Potpie,” with helpful tips from charity leaders and party planners on spending less and collecting more at fundraisers in this economic climate. Despite the fact that I have been doing just that for years now, my phone didn't ring for a quote so even though I hate to toot my own horn, obviously I can’t count on The New York Times to do it.

Once again, I find myself ahead of my time because NYRP’s benefits have been “Recession Chic” for years. A couple of years ago at the Hulaween gala, we actually did serve chicken potpie and the year before that, meatloaf. People were thrilled—even the vegetarians! This year I’m thinking Spam Wellington. You can put anything in puff pastry!

Our centerpieces are always living plants or seedlings that are then transplanted to one of our parks or gardens, thereby doing double duty. In addition, we only serve donated local wines and I may I just say, Chateau Bensonhurst ain’t bad.

Another place to save is on the waitstaff. Why hire buff, good-looking, expensive actor/model/waiters when less attractive, older servers will do? I’ve been known to hire waiters whose last supper was the Last Supper.

Obviously, no one can keep a nonprofit in the black by wasting money, so many of us nonprofiteers will be creatively cutting corners, recycling, and finding ways to offer more for less, in order to continue our important work. Expect it, applaud it, and reward it. And if you need further proof, drop into the NYRP Spring Picnic, which is held in a tent (How cheap is that?) in Fort Tryon Park on May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Tables are $10,000 but pay in cash, and I’ll give it to you for $8,500. You may find yourself eating beans from a can, but where else can you hear Bette Midler sing “Buddy, Can You Spare Three Million”?