Bringing in the Bling

Rebecca Staed
March 10, 2005

Rejection builds character.

Maybe I tell myself that because I?ve danced with rejection. My character could touch the sky.

I spent this past summer interning with the youth media nonprofit Children?s PressLine, in New York City. A group of our young reporters and editors were gearing up for the Republican and Democratic national conventions, where they would churn out stories from the hub of the action.

I was in charge of securing various food and material contributions to keep costs down during both convention weeks.

While I knew that nonprofits survive on donations, as a journalism major at Hollins University I also knew that journalists should not accept donations if it compromises journalistic integrity. So before accepting the internship, I asked my supervisor, ?How much influence do your donors have on the topics and stories that you cover??

?None,? she said.

So I took the job. Two months seemed like more than enough time to get everything ready for the conventions. Here?s how I pictured my summer internship: I would make lots of calls, lay on the charm, explain my goal to get free stuff for the kids, and a voice on the other end would proclaim ?Yes, of course!? After work, I would shop and soak up music in Central Park. Life really would be a bowl of cherries!

Or so I thought.

When I finally jumped into cold calling what seemed like every food business in Manhattan, I learned that getting donations was far from easy.

Some days were worse than others, not only because of repeated "no?s," but also because of the hang-ups.

You try arguing with the angry buzz of a disconnected telephone call!

Or, after pleading with a pizzeria for what seemed like hours, they sent a single ?One Free Large Thin Crust Pizza? coupon in the mail. Did they expect us to divide the pie into 30 scraps and tell the kids, ?Just chew slowly??

Didn?t they understand I was trying to feed an army of growing kids?!

Yet, food was probably the easiest to get. More so than discounted train tickets, computer supplies, cameras, T-shirts, or 30 Boston Duck Tours! Companies kept feeding me poor excuses in a ?call someone who cares? tone.

In silent retribution, I compiled a hit list of cold, greedy corporations who couldn?t spare their time, energy, or food?crumbs, really, in the scheme of things?for our small yet notable organization. I vowed to deprive them of my business, as if I were saving society from corporate hunger.

At one point I even considered pitching pride and decency out the 15th-floor office window by teetering to a particular car rental company in heels, a mini-skirt, and low-cut blouse to ask the owner once more if he was certain that he wouldn?t cut us a deal.

He was. But, don?t worry, I called instead.

July arrived, and I began to get the hang of things. Or really, I just got better at it. The more comfortable I got asking for donations and talking about CPL?s mission, the more donations I received. People responded best when I remembered their name, didn?t ramble, and managed not to sound nervous.

By the end of the summer, I had even adopted a gutsy tone, and I rehearsed my pitch before calling. The donations were not exactly rolling in, but these things take time. In the end, I snagged some pretty cool bling (for those of you who don?t know, ?bling? means goods.) I got free cell phones and minutes for both conventions, and lots of free food.

So, I?ll share my secrets with you. My logical but hard-earned approach to getting donations in a city you?re not in:

Be a fearless caller. Just like in high school, there are no stupid questions?or wrong companies to call. The best place to start is the Yellow Pages or city guide on the web.

Ask for someone in charge or in public relations. Typically, they are the ones who make these decisions or can direct you to someone else who can. If it?s a worker, keep in mind that they are busy, and cut to the chase.

State your organization?s mission. Why should anyone care about you? Be clear about what you want, why you need it, when you want it by, and how much you want.

Be perceptive and receptive to your audience. Know their values. Is the business small or large? I found family-oriented places the most willing to donate. When I called ?mom-and-pop? places, I made it clear that the kids were my top priority, not the food. The kids literally depended upon me for sustenance during both conventions. They were the backbone of the project and deserved the most valiant effort I could give, and people responded to that.

Leave messages and try, try again. If you don?t catch someone the first time, usually, they are curious and will call back. But if someone says they will get back to you, don?t hold your breath. Call back and ask for someone else. Give a pseudo-name the next time. It?s just like going to dad after mom says ?no.? We all did it, and a lot of times it worked. And never leave a "maybe" hanging.

Keep a written record of who you talk to, when you talked to them, their position, and their response. It is embarrassing and unprofessional to forget someone?s name or a previous conversation with them.

Pay attention to ads or articles concerning groups that could help you. In my case, the cell phone company that donated phones and minutes targeted a hip, young, urban crowd in their ads, very similar to our kids.

Use your PR skills. If you want something, let them know what you can offer in return. Allow them to share their ideas with you as well. Most companies, I learned, were willing to invest in us if they understood our mission and if we could give some publicity in return. We offered press releases, photo-ops with our kids, or their company name or logo on our T-shirts and banners. A cell phone company requested a focus group with the kids regarding their cell phone experience after both conventions. So that was definitely a win-win situation.

Make things convenient for them. I always offered specific days and times that we would pick up their donation to minimize hesitations over details. After all, donors are giving you their services or products for free, so you want to make it easy for them.

Persuade them that if they say ?no? they will miss out on one of the best opportunities of the year. Peer pressure can be a powerful tool of persuasion. When I was trying to persuade someone who sounded hesitant, I mentioned others who had already jumped on the bandwagon, eager about the distinguished guests that would either see or talk with our young reporters at both conventions. Does George W. Bush or Hilary Rodham Clinton ring a bell?

Learn to love rejection. What doesn?t kill us makes us stronger, right?

In the face of rejection, I say, ?Bring it on!?


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