I was a new and passionate baseball fan in 1949 and fell in love with a movie called It Happens Every Spring, Ray Milland, Jean Peters, and Paul Douglas. It was the story of a professor who accidentally invents a potion that repels wood and becomes a pitching phenomenon for the St. Louis Browns baseball team.
For many years I find myself thinking about that movie each year as something happens to me every spring other than baseball.
Starting early in each year local food businesses are inundated with requests from schools, public and private, universities, churches and many charitable organizations that look for donations to their auctions and raffles that are part of your life and ours.
This is not new to me as I have been in the food business in Washington for 25 years. But even now after 25 years I don’t fully understand why small independent local businesses, often struggling themselves, are so frequently implored to make contributions to private schools; and I limited Marvelous Market, my first venture, and The BreadLine, my second, to participation in public school auctions and a few other fund-raisers.
Voluntarism is a great American tradition, one that I believe in. Private non-profit voluntary organizations have always been a bedrock of this country. I mean always. In the first half of the 19th Century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about our proclivity for joining each other in social activism. Parent-teacher organizations, advisory neighborhood commissions, and other local civic groups are in that tradition.
But why do they gravitate so strongly in their requests for donations to local businesses? Why not ask Citibank and UBS to chip in. Shouldn’t British Petroleum and Haliburton be supporting the Murch School? I thought about this as I was driving to Dulles a couple of weeks ago looking at all those buildings with mysterious initials that line the corridor, all those quasi-police and intelligence companies. Are they being asked to donate to Lafayette Elementary?
Probably not. Who would know whom to ask – if there is a whom at all.
Again a small business owner after several years as a consultant I am daunted by the sheer number of requests we have received in this spring fund-raising season. Neighborhood schools, schools out of the neighborhood, public schools, private schools, universities and religious schools have sent us letters and forms. Add to those churches, synagogues, arts organizations, civic organizations, and others.
It is important to give back to the community. I believe that. That sentiment has been part of my entire life going back to my social worky and faintly socialist family. And I suppose small neighborhood businesses are singled out like this because they are rooted in neighborhoods and easy to appeal to.
But I really dislike this process. I don’t like to refuse and I don’t refuse. Being a neighborhood business is one of my two highest aspirations in being here – the other being a wonderful bakery. But even though I feel really committed to the neighhborhood I don’t want to scatter dollars here and there and I want to be able to pick causes that seem really important to me.
I have been puzzled and did not know don’t know what to do about this until now. But the number of requests we have received has forced me to consider Bread Furst’s role in the neighborhood and indeed in the city.
We are a new business and although the neighborhood has embraced us tightly we are still just starting and learning how to become prosperous. Our abilities are limited and there are so many needs in our city and our society generally does so little collectively, through government, to meet those needs. The charitable impulse and voluntary contributions are part of America.
I have decided that I am going to respond to all the requests by public schools in our neighborhood by donating a gift certificate – but only this year.
It seems to me that as a food business in a community in which there are so many needs, we should direct our giving and the logical place to direct the giving of a food business is toward hunger. So I have accepted an invitation to participate in the Blue Jeans Ball of the Capital Food Bank and I am going to seek a partnership with one or more of the charitable food enterprises in Washington.
In the future we are going to forego school auctions and hope that the neighborhood supports that choice.