It Happens Every Spring

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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In the future we are going to forego school auctions and hope that the neighborhood supports that choice.

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10 thoughts on “It Happens Every Spring

  1. I remember talking to Joyce Goldstein about this. Nobody outside of the business can possibly understand how many such requests you receive (just as nobody can understand the number or requests I get for interviews). Numbers would be helpful, or lists of the groups that ask, every one of them deserving, of course. The groups and individuals who ask have no idea…

  2. What an honest appraisal of what must be an overwhelming issue. Of course, the indidvidual “requesters” think of the validity of their individual request, not their part in what could be an avalanche of requests for what, as you say, is a small business. I would imagine that your custormers could understand and support your decision to share your, at present, limited resources with folks in this city who don’t have food security – or any security for that matter. Even the “public” schools in the area around Bread Furst are much better off than most in this city.

  3. As a private individual I have a similar if much smaller problem. My solution, like yours, is to donate to the Capital Area Food Bank, which seems to me to be well positioned to help solve the most urgent local issue.

  4. This is a wonderful post. Potomac Vegetable Farm also is also asked to participate in charity events and to donate fresh foods to local causes, and often does. At least you aren’t asked to sell bagels at annual bazaars, field days, and save-the-earth events.

  5. A thoughtful exposition of s small business challenge most customers would never know about. Perhaps picking one non profit and a percent of the bottom line you want to contribute and putting a sign in your window that says ” BreadFurst proudly supports X ” or part of your purchase will go to support X will help. Also making a commitment to one organization maximizes your impact. Good luck with this difficult decision.

  6. A thoughtful presentation of this issue. Until I read it, I had no idea about this difficult problem. You have found an excellent solution to it.

  7. Wow. I have been a customer for some time, often taking my kids for a haircut and then over to your bakery afterward.

    It seems to me that if you really wish to be part of the community then you have to support the community — at the local, micro level. Doesn’t it make sense to support the school of the parents and kids who frequent your establishment? Doesn’t that make sense from a marketing point of view — introduce others to your wonderful products?

    For what it is worth, my kids’ public school is not all that close to Bread Furst. I’ve loved every item I’ve ever purchased and BOUGHT a gift card to contribute to the school’s auction. Having read your screed, I’m especially happy that I didn’t ask for a contribution.

    Perhaps I should share this missive with whoever wins the gift card. I think they should know how much you seem to resent being asked to support the very community that supports you.

    It doesn’t make much of a difference to me — having read this, I’m fairly certain I won’t be spending my money at Bread Furst anymore.

    • We surely do want to be part of this community. Being a neighborhood bakery and producing wonderful foods are our highest values. Being part of the community requires us to give back, of course, but may we not choose how we direct our giving?

      We hope you won’t stop coming here simply because we share our ruminations with you,

  8. Thoughtful post. People don’ t realize how often the small business owners along upper NW Connecticut Ave are targeted for donations.

    Unless this neighborhood bakery is turning huge profit margins selling diamond encrusted cookies, it is unreasonable for anyone to feel entitled to donations. Even donating to a select few organizations a year would sill disappoint the ones you then have to decline. Rather than boycott your decision, the community should empathize with your predicament and appreciate your generosity to date.

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