Summer reading and toosh dev
We need every drop of philanthropy we can get. We must fasten our lips to the spigot and suck, so to speak.
“The Ask” – Sam Lipsyte
I’m blogging today from the land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, where still the mighty moose wanders at will. What you call your own ‘where’ — camp, cabin, or cottage — depends on what part of Canada you’re from, but everyone’s destination looks pretty much the same: blue lake and rocky shore, family and friends, sunsets on the dock. And above all, in a Canadian camp/cabin/cottage there are books. The swollen and musty throwback paperbacks permanent to your camp/cabin/cottage and that you’d only read, for reasons both pragmatic and snobby, in that context (“Mrs. John Albert Jr.’s Guide to Making Soap out of Wild Game Fat”, “Summer Sisters” by Judy Blume). And, of course of most of all, those books you’ve saved all year to read at the lake.
On my cottage reading list this year was a newishly-published book I recently picked up at an independent book seller on Granville Island in Vancouver: “The Ask” by New York City author Sam Lipsyte. The Vancouver trip was a marathon of major donor visits for me, and so I reached almost mindlessly for the book when I saw it, my jet-lagged mind perhaps supposing its title as the next in my series of briefing notes to read. I read the inside flap, and immediately put it back. Fiction, after all, is about escapism, and the plot summary was too close to my then vacation-yearning professional bone: “Milo Burke – husband, father, development officer at a third-tier university – has just joined the burgeoning class of the newly unemployed. Grasping after odd jobs to support his wife and child, Milo is relieved to get another chance from his former boss. All he has to do is reel in a potential donor – a major “ask” – who, mysteriously, has requested Milo’s involvement.”
Of course I bought the book. Except for the door canvassers in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, I can’t recall any other literary fictions that have fundraisers as characters (though I’m not trying to think too hard, eh. I’m on vacation). And so, dear readers, fundraisers of the English and Dutch speaking worlds, today’s post is a brief review of “The Ask” so you can decide to include it on your own sacred summer book reading list or not.
There’s no 3G or internet at my cottage, so I have no idea if this book has already been extensively reviewed or already known to the fundraising world. No matter. And I won’t be following the familiar formula of book reviewing here, but instead go right for the themes and scenes that will be of interest to fundraisers. Most book reviews are just plot summaries anyway (see above for this one), because most novels are plot-driven with very little character development – and my main complaint with Lipsyte’s book. The motivations of donors, the drive of a development officer: this is rich and uncharted stuff in fiction. I could end my critique right now by saying that, at a quick skim, Lipsyte’s choice to make his protagonist a mediocre development officer is only incidental. But it’s ominously deliberate. “The Ask” is a fin du siècle of post-Lehman Brothers “dead America”, as told in the bilious, uncensored first-person Gen X angst of our development officer hero, Milo.
Remember: I’m writing this and you’re presumably reading it in summer, when we all shouldn’t be taking ourselves too seriously. So let’s start with the fun stuff: how does an author and creative writing teacher at Columbia University render characters in a novel that’s somewhat about the profession of fundraising? As you would imagine, Lipsyte has all the stock characters of “the development office of a mediocre university in New York City”:
1. Milo Burke, protagonist, anxious and mostly ineffective: “Truth was, the Teitelbaum ask was going nowhere. I was barely hanging on here in development. I wasn’t developing. I’d become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy of others, a walking reminder of somebody’s error in judgment.”
But then he closes a big ask and is addressed by the Chief Development Officer:
“Seems Mr. Burke is to your average development officer what a recon marine is to your typical jarhead. He’s the cream of the crop, and best left alone to gather his own intel, set his own traps, and take down the enemy like a freaking phantom ninja born straight out of Satan’s blazing quim.”
2. Llewellyn, top earning development officer: “Our rainmaker, Llewellyn, seemed born to this job, keen for any chance to tickle the rectal bristles of the rich with his Tidewater tongue. He was almost never in the office, instead sealing the deal on a Gulfstream IV to Bucharest, or lying topside on a Corfu yacht, slathered in bronzer. Llewellyn delivered endowed chairs, editing suites, sculpture gardens.”
3. Dean Cooley, Chief Development Officer: “The door opened and in walked a large man with a moist pompadour and a tight beige mustache. Dean Cooley was not a dean. He was Mediocre’s chief development officer. Several groups worked under him, and he spent most of his energy on the more lucrative ones, like business, law, or medicine. He’d been a marine, and then some kind of salesman, had started with cars and ended up in microchips and early internet hustles. Here in the cozy halls of academe, as he had put it during our first team talk, he meant to reassess his priorities. Meanwhile he would train us maggots how to ask asks and get gives.”
4. And, of course, Purdy Stuart, the triple-AAA personality of the entrepreneurial donor: “Purdy’s mania seemed to subside, the dope scorer’s calm after the dope has been scored.” It is significant, too, that Purdy – the donor – has an illegitimate and strung-out war vet (Iraq and Afghanistan) son named, wait for it, Don. Purdy, of course, is the one “ask” Milo has to deliver, and much of his development work – as a condition of this donor – is to help resolve the problematic father and son relationship. “You had to have everything or have nothing to act in this world,” Milo observes, and this is ultimately true in the case of the donor (who has everything) and his son, Don (who has nothing).
More passages fundraisers will appreciate about this narrative: the hard details concerning the technique of raising money. Again, without internet access, I can’t Google why Lipsyte is interested in and how he researched the day-to-day nuances in development, details that only a fundraiser would know:
On going on a call: “I’d made the khaki-moistening hike past all the car dealerships and muffler shops on Northern Boulevard in Queens.”
….and coming home after: “…even a piker like me knows you don’t cadge cab money from the ask. It’s a central tenet of development.”
On the typical peer recognition received for obtaining a big gift (love this one!): “No sour chardonnay got guzzled in my honour, nor did any lithe director of communications flick her tongue in my ear, vow to put me on the splash page of Excellence, the university’s public relations blog.”
On the ethics of gift acceptance:
“Where’s the money from?”
“Her husband’s company. Private security. Military catering.”
“Blood sausage, anyone?” I said.
“Oh, please,” said Llewellyn. “We can’t wash the bad off anybody’s money, now, can we? But we can make something good out of all the misery.”
As the loons and wood ducks on the lake I’m staring at know, the nourishment lies under the surface. Herewith I offer you some of the themes of “The Ask,” but, again, selecting those only of interest to fundraisers. Because my drink will soon need more ice.
THEME 1: The Dominance of the Donor in the fund development process, or, the Rich Control the World and Everyone and Everything in it
Again, I will not spoil the plot or premise here in case you choose to read this book. Lipsyte cleverly, if fancifully, uses the gift transaction and donor/charity relationship to develop Milo’s conspiracy theory about his belief there are a few masters of late capitalism who decide the course of all events through the power of money: “The asks had me nailed from the get-go, ever since they installed the selfware, back in Milo Year Zero. That’s how the whole long con got started.” Every good novel is built on great scenes, and one of the best is the dinner meeting Milo arranges to explore a big ask of his donor, but quickly loses control of his agenda to Purdy, “…you’re not the only one with an ask. I’m going to ask you to do a few things for me.”
Milo understands he and his donor don’t occupy the same world: “You must return to your planet. Please tell them of us, who live in crappy towns and struggle to get by,” and this idea is later reinforced by his development officer colleague, Horace: “All you need to remember is that nothing changes. New technology, new markets, global interconnectivity, doesn’t matter. It’s still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced.” Fundamentalist development officers – something for all of us to watch out for and be very frightened of indeed.
THEME 2: Working America is full of Dead Office Drones
Perhaps because the author is gifted with wordplay, language is used and often referenced to shine light on one of my favourite themes in this book and irritants in real life: the notion that you must subjugate your personality and quirks to be “professional”: “I sent Purdy an email, thanked him for dinner, told him how thrilled I was to be working with him on this tremendously exciting project. I used all the dead language. Dead language would keep me alive.”
At a later meeting, the donor character becomes my small hero, saying, “Shit, Milo, don’t give me the boilerplate. Let’s be people. I didn’t hear you say anything about painting. Figured that’d be your interest. Need new studios or something? How about a huge prize? Don’t be bashful.”
Theme 2 is loosely related to THEME 3: Those who Can’t…Fundraise.
Our protagonist, Milo Burke, is in fact raising money for the fine arts department of the university. He was also once a student, “…a fraud, chockablock with self-regard, at an overpriced institution just like this one, still had the debt to prove it”.
In one of his reminiscences – an example of Lipsyte’s most artful and powerful writing – Milo channels his inner Stephen Dedalus, declaring, “It was Art. I was an Artist.” Capital A. Always small d and o for development officer. In Chapter 25, Lipsyte shows with a wink the idea of art’s supremacy over middle-class, derivative, knowledge-economy careers like fundraising:
“…if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?”
“I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”
In conclusion to this holiday book review, I argue there are many reasons
for reading this book. Lipsyte’s writing is deadly and unlike most prose
you’ve read before, his statement on humanity frighteningly thoughtful, and
his many mot justes and narrative scenes are amusingly LOL (I’m using this
ironically, so as not to perpetuate dead language). But what’s completely
absent in “The Ask” is the gravitas and respect due to the philanthropists
and development officers in fiction and the real world, regard for their
own aspirations, and hard work together for the “toosh dev” (institutional
development) to turn their respective Mediocre Universities into top institutions and
mission leaders. I therefore firmly place “The Ask” in the category of fiction and safe for fundraisers to pick up for a good summer read.
(What’s on your reading list this summer?)