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Shop Local... Solicit Local

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Apr 30, 2012
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I hate selling and I hate soliciting, but those are two things I find myself having to do.

Sales is part of my job nowadays; I would much rather simply let my clients come to their own conclusion about the services I offer, without having to pitch, persuade, and/or plead for their continued business. (My mentor in these matters tells me that it’s not a matter of "selling" anything to anyone but rather "guiding them to their heart’s desire." This grasshopper doesn’t quite get it yet, but give it time.)

In the real world, of course, it’s not quite so simple, but I have learned how to offer my professional and honest opinion about how my clients can benefit from my services. Sometimes they hear past the pitch to the genuine concern I’m attempting to communicate; sometimes they only hear what they take to be a sales effort, and tune out. What I won’t do is try to tell someone I know better than they do what it is they really need; maybe that makes me a poor salesman. Another thing I won’t do is try to sell somebody something I don’t truly believe would benefit him.

As for soliciting--well, let no one doubt my love for the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Speaking or singing in front of a room full of people has never been a terror for me, but having to show up at someone’s place of business and ask for a donation sets off a volley of voices in my head that makes my heart shudder.

Who do I think I am (those voices demand), showing up, metaphorical hat in hand, to demand an item or a service free of charge? However worthy the cause, how can I be so presumptuous?

Every year, as Crescendo! time approaches, I wrestle with this conundrum. Most years I simply buy some items for themed baskets and donate them; problem solved. Except that the problem isn’t even addressed; it’s sidestepped.

Let me explain Crescendo!. It’s an annual fundraiser that benefits the Chorus. I mean, it benefits the Chorus a lot--as in, it’s crucial to our survival. Ticket sales from our three annual concerts don’t cover our operating expenses, and even with annual dues and performance fees levied on our membership before each concert, we’re still faced with a shortfall.

We have several avenues to try and fill the gap. There are always individual donations, and we have contributors (wonderful, generous souls) who stand by us year after year. Corporate sponsorships help a great deal, too. And then there is Crescendo!, which is essentially a big party with a fund-raising silent auction. The auction is live, and the party lively; we do know how to put on a good time, after all, and every year we have special guests providing entertainment (no less than Miss Richfield 1981 this year!). The proverbial good time is always had by all, and personally, I look forward to the event every year. (Though it breaks my heart, I will not be attending this time around--the one thing I love more than the Chorus is my family, and I have a family event that same weekend.)

Let me quote BGMC Board Vice President Laura De Veau (a married straight woman: The Chorus is nothing if not diverse, and proud of it!). Laura had this to say about Crescendo! recently: "It is a fun, and festive atmosphere and one where anyone is welcome to attend and have fun, bid on items and hang out with great people. It is not a sit down, boring dinner!"

Well, amen, sister!

Anyway, the point here is that the live silent auction drives Crescendo!’s fund raising. Enter the solicitation part of the equation: We always need items, ranging from small and delightful (a themed basket full of DVDs and snacks for a "Movie Night," for example, or my perennial favorite, the "Tea for Two" basket with a selection of fine teas, a couple of cups, a teapot, and an assortment of cookies and other delectables) to big-ticket items like a vacation trip or a gourmet dinner in the company of our esteemed music director, Reuben M. Reynolds III, and his husband Bill.

Determined to grasp the nettle by the horns (if I may mix a couple of metaphors), I sat down to examine the source of my anxiety and reluctance. Countless cups of tea, prayerful mediation before my Shrine to Durga, and a couple of tearful calls to my therapist later, it came down to this: I don’t want to trouble a total stranger by asking him to care about something just because I do.

That’s when the cartoon light bulb clicked on over my cranium. Why ask strangers? I make a point to shop locally at small businesses. Why not go to them for silent auction items?

I made up a list of the places I frequent and rely on to get through the average day. There was only one business on the list that fell outside the definition of a small local concern, and that was my gym. Still, I’ve been going there for years and years now, and what would I do without it? This year’s outreach for Crescendo! wasn’t going to be all about asking people for stuff: It was going to be about inviting the businesses (nay, the institutions!) I love the most to join me in a glorious project, and get some name recognition for themselves while they were at it. (After all--and this is part of why I contribute something from my own business--such donations are also a marketing opportunity.)

The results were decidedly mixed, but educational. One of the places I would have put on the list--my local bicycle shop, a longtime fixture in the neighborhood--closed down a couple of months ago. I guess I won’t be soliciting them for a shiny new Schwinn. Another place had me fill out a "donation request form" that asked for the BGMC’s "mission statement." (For the record, here it is, or at least my "elevator speech" rendition of it: "To promote a more just and accepting society through the power of music.")

The economic downturn has evidently been tough enough that everyone else is also asking the same (surviving) local businesses for donations, and so those businesses have to have a means of filtering and assessing their options. Which means they have to have grounds figured out in advance for whom to say yes to, and whom to answer with a no.

Only a couple of places turned me down flat. One concern let me know that because of the volume of requests they receive for charitable donations (over 40 every week!) they had decided to focus on food pantries. Hey, I am down with that! The BGMC feeds the soul and sustains social progress, but feeding the hungry is important too. Another local business explained that they restrict their giving to those groups that benefit children. Again, I have no quibble there. I remain an ardent fan of both those businesses and don’t feel at all put out by their polite refusals.

One business that I have patronized for more than a decade simply didn’t respond to the email I sent. Maybe business is booming; maybe my note got caught in their spam filter. Maybe they don’t "do" donations. It’s not a problem; I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask, and it didn’t. I’ll just ask again next year, but do it earlier so I have more time for follow-up.

Then there were the businesses that didn’t even think about it--they simply said ’Yes’, and gave most generously. I’m grateful to all the businesses I canvassed, but those particular ones get a gold star in my book.

The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus will host Crescendo! on May 12 at The House of Blues in Boston. From the BGMC website: "Festive and fun, the evening will feature cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, lively bidding, and a highlight special performance by the BGMC’s favorite Midwestern maven of comedy, Miss Richfield 1981." More information and tickets are available at the BGMC’s site.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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