The Hemingway Foundation held a tasty fundraiser last Thursday night titled “Salut Hemingway: A Toast to a Moveable Feast.” Conspicuous consumption was the theme as over 100 supporters paid $100 per ticket to taste wines from Cabernet & Company, cheeses from the Marion Street Cheese Market, and hors d’oeuvres from Winberie’s in the lobby of the Oak Park Art Center. Presentations followed, including a wildly condensed tour de force (complete with 80 slides) by Ambria Restaurant’s sommelier Bob Bansberg, a fan of both wines and Hemingway.
Afterward, the assembly split in two contingents and walked to either Hemmingway’s Bistro or Cafe Le Coq for French-style Hemingway repasts.
A delightful evening, raising some $10,000 for the mission”but just a drop in the bucket compared to what the Hemingway Foundation needs to raise.
The foundation is mortgaged beyond their means and faces a critical year as they attempt to pay off debt and develop a plan for the future. Recently, they went before the village board for the third year to request a $50,000 grant to continue paying off a $180,000 interest-bearing debt. That’s in addition to the $420,000 First Bank of Oak Park has been carrying for them, interest-free, since they purchased the Hemingway Boyhood Home at Iowa and Kenilworth almost four years ago.
The board approved the grant, but not before receiving some advice from Trustee (and professional fundraiser) Bob Milstein, who said they needed to become a lot more aggressive about raising money.
“They need to identify a consultant,” Milstein said in an interview Monday, “a professional in the field who can help them expand their donor base. Otherwise, they’ll be coming back to us every year.”
It’s not their fault, really, Milstein said. The Hemingway group is pretty typical of small, volunteer-driven organizations”they rely too much on searching for grants and don’t feel comfortable aggressively asking individuals for money.
“People don’t like asking other people for money,” Milstein said, “but they have to.” Grants account for an average of about seven percent of fundraising revenue for organizations nationwide. Big donors are great when they happen, but Milstein said the foundation needs to focus on the “intermediate level,” otherwise known as “the thousand-dollar donors.”
They not only have to ask, Milstein said, they also have to be organized about it. They’ve made lots of connections over the years with their events and programming. Those individuals need to be tracked.
“Fundraising is based on relationships,” said Milstein, who currently works for Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and noted that one woman in their donor base had given a total of $55 to the agency over a period of 30 years, but they kept sending her notes of thanks and inviting her to stay involved. “When she died recently, she left us $1.1 million,” Milstein said. “Big gifts take a long time. You have to lay the foundation. The intermediate level is the key in the short run.”
The Hemingway Foundation faces a dilemma. “They’re a very small organization with a very big mission,” said Milstein. And they face lots of fundraising competition in Oak Park where there are myriad very worthy causes. But whereas an organization like the Housing Center is pretty much limited to Oak Park and surrounding environs, the Hemingway Foundation’s potential donor base is world-wide. In fact, as the foundation’s chair, Allan Baldwin noted, “Hemingway is at least as popular outside of this country as he is here.”
Event fundraising, though fun, is likewise limited. In addition to the competition on any given weekend in Oak Park, events are very labor intensive and exhausting when you have a small number of volunteers. The important thing about events, Milstein said, is that it’s good advertising for your organization and good for making contacts that can be added to the donor base.
“The key word is incrementalism,” he said. “It ain’t going to happen overnight.”
But carrying this much debt, the foundation is feeling a sense of urgency. Baldwin, who took over in April from longtime former board chair Virginia Cassin (who serves now as vice chair), is trying to do some of what Milstein suggests. Baldwin, the former vice president of technology at Loyola University, is bringing his computer expertise to the organization in order to create and enlarge that donor base.
But the immediate question is what to do about the Boyhood Home. When it came on the market almost four years ago, the foundation felt it might be their only chance to preserve it, so they mortgaged themselves to the hilt, thanks to First Bank of Oak Park, which also helped them buy the Birth Home years ago. Since then, the foundation has been trying to figure out what to do with their latest acquisition. Converted to a 3-flat by its previous owner, the foundation has rented out the apartments, essentially treading water while they developed a plan and tried to pay off the older debt.
Now the house is falling into disrepair and needs basic maintenance. Baldwin said that includes, most immediately, painting the trim, redoing the roof and razing the eyesore garage which was built after Ernie’s time in Oak Park.
“It’s very important for us to be good neighbors,” Baldwin said.
But he and Cassin estimate it will take $1.4 million to fully remodel the structure and do some restoration. The wish list includes recreating Grace Hemingway’s “Music Room,” which once existed on the north side of the house. The first floor, would be devoted to small public events and tours, Cassin said, with offices on the second floor and possibly a writer-in-residence living on the third floor where Ernie’s bedroom was located. Baldwin said they’ve approached a number of universities about a partnership arrangement, which might include a family living on the second and third floors.
Partnership may also be the foundation’s best bet for keeping the house”and keeping some control over it. “We don’t have to own the house,” he said. “We just want to protect it.” Baldwin said they approached the Park District of Oak Park about such a partnership, but the timing was bad, coming just as the parks were going through their own financial reorganization.
But both Cassin and Baldwin recognize the organization can’t rely on help from the village and local banks forever.
Milstein said they need to stop looking at fundraising as “charity” and start looking at it as “social entrepreneurship.”
“If you want your mission to survive,” he said, “you have to ask people for money.”