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We Need a Theme

Everyone who has ever tried to dream up a non-profit fundraising idea has faced the same question: What is going to bring people out and separate them from their cash? It sounds brutal to phrase it that way, but that is the cold hard fact. We all need funding to keep doing the good work in which we believe so passionately.

The way to engage most people is to offer them an idea that sounds fun. Give them good music, something cool to do or a chance to dress up and act silly, and you have a better chance to get them to your event. Then once there, you need clever ideas to get them to feel the joy of the phrase “tax deductible”.

I’m not talking about the ubiquitous silent auction items. Anyone who can unfold a plastic cafeteria table can figure that much out. What can make the difference in attendance and success is a name and games that make women say, “Oh, how cute,” and make men say, “Sure, honey, that doesn’t sound so bad.”  In other words, you need a theme.

Some hugely successful ideas are also hugely simple. The Houston Rockets do an annual fundraiser for their charities called “Tuxes and Tennies”. Now, what makes it a sold out event every year is not that fashion purists are agog at the scandalous concept of shoes that don’t match the suit. They just have a boatload of folks willing to fork over a fair amount to rub elbows with professional basketball players, or maybe rub elbows to thighs.  Plus there is the curiosity factor in finding out how much material goes into a seven foot six dude’s cumberbund.

Originality is nice, but not a necessity. One theme that you’ll find being used all across the great U.S.  of A. is the “Denim and Diamonds” party. It’s brilliant, if you think about it. It’s a clever name. Alliteration is always catchy. More importantly, it gives the well-to-do an excuse to show off their fancy jewelry, or better yet, a reason for that doctor to buy a new necklace or for that attorney to splurge for a gaudy pinky ring.

If you have a devoted following for your charity, some of them will show up for a “Paint Drying Shindig”, but I wouldn’t count on them bringing friends. It’s better to do a “Beach Blanket Bash” than to simply hold a “Fall Fundraiser”. At one of them, people know ahead of time to wear Hawaiian shirts and Jimmy Buffett shark fins. You know what kind of band you need to book. Figuring out the decorations is a snap, and the food also has a theme you can follow. It makes for easier planning and advertising and a much more cohesive event. I won’t make that mistake again.

In browsing around while writing this piece, I stumbled across a British site which has my new favorite (or favourite) fundraiser idea of all time: Ferret Races. (link )Now we all know the Brits love to gamble, but the idea here is give weasels a pithy name, run them through a maze of drain pipe and get tipsy party goers to wager on the outcome, with the house pocketing a cut. Aside from the fact that it sounds possibly illegal, it seems like smashing fun. Or you could just opt to risk the wrath of PETA and go straight for the fighting roosters.

The bottom line is that a good theme makes for a better event. And something that sounds like a good time is much easier for you to promote and for your members and volunteers to hype to their friends. You’re trying to get new faces out to your fundraiser, so give them a nice reason to come donate. One good place to start might be with a fiver on Ferreteriat.


A Non-Runner Comes to His Census

I filled out my census form in about 38 seconds. It took me longer to get the stamp off my tongue once I found out they’re self-adhesive. Okay, it didn’t require a stamp, but you get the drift.

To say that I was disappointed by the lack of curiosity that our government has about me would be a gross understatement. Ignoring all of that “right to privacy” advocacy by people who haven’t yet figured out that cat was out of his bag as soon as the telegraph was invented, it’s my opinion that most Americans want to matter. So when Uncle Sam only asks me three questions, I’m saying, “HEY!!! What’s wrong with me??”
It’s kind of like being ignored by a passel of chunky, ugly women when you’re the only guy at a bar. You’re not necessarily looking to score, but it’d be nice to know they care.

A quick history lesson: The first six censuses only asked for the name of heads of household. If you were a wife or a kid, all you got was a tick mark in a given column same as the sheep and oxen. If you lived in a small enough dwelling, you probably also got the actual tick. By 1850, everyone’s name got listed, even though most of those farm folks likely still smelled like the sheep or the oxen.

You get to the census of 1930, though, and they asked questions. The government wanted to know where you were born, where your parents were born, what you did for a living, when you got married and whether you could read or write. I understand the last one being dropped from the 2010 version. I mean, nobody wants to embarrass all those folks who watch Fox News.

By the 1970s and 80s, one out of every ten households got the “long form”. That included questions about how many toilets you had and how often you had sex. Although, I’m still not certain the sex question was official since it was written onto my form by hand. And it looked suspiciously like my ex-wife’s handwriting, now that I think about it.

So I was some kind of bummed when I opened my form for this year. They didn’t give a rat’s butt about me in the least. Own or rent? They don’t care. Level of education? Nope. Not interested. Number of acres I farm? No sabe.
Clearly the government is not remotely doing their job in the area of surreptitiously gathering information on its citizens. I spent the entire Bush Administration paying good tax dollars for unconstitutional fact gathering, and to stop it now… well, I for one am cheesed.

What kind of cheese? See, there’s a question the feds might want answered. Give me a set of boxes, and let me fill in American, Swiss, cheddar, gouda, Velveeta and Whiz.
Get a little personal. If the IRS can do it, so can the census bureau. The travel security dude had no trouble putting his hand down my pants at O’Hare, so ask away. Though technically the Chicago cops told me later that he didn’t even work there.

Have you or any family member slept with Tiger Woods, Jesse James or Eliot Spitzer? I can handle that question, but nobody was asking.

Here’s what it comes down to: How on Earth are they supposed to serve my needs as a citizen if they don’t know the first thing about me?!?!

Finally I decided to take matters into my own hands. If they’re not going to come right out and ask everything that I think they need to know about me, I’m sending it in anyway. I pulled out a nice clean sheet of paper and wrote a little essay about myself.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe everyone should do that. Sure they just asked how many people in my household, but what I think they really meant was : “Tell us a little about yourself in your own words”. This could be my opportunity. It’d be like 308 million people on Surely even I could get a date in a pool that broad…. Maybe.

“Dear Feds,
“I’m a single guy in Houston who likes sports, movies, beer, pool, golf, movies about sports, bicycling, dogs, movies about dogs, beer, movies about beer, good food, wine, blues music, jazz, beer and bikini contests. I currently have two bottles of good tequila in my freezer that have been there since the Clinton Administration. I have two dogs who live with me. One male, one female. Sometimes my daughter’s dog stays here, too. I also have lots of hair, but most of it’s not mine.

“But enough about me. What am I looking for in a government? Honesty, caring, a good sense of humor, somebody I wouldn’t mind going to foreign countries with, and somebody who’ll pick up the check every once in awhile.

“I don’t think I’m asking too much. You know, I fully expect to pay for most meals, but hey, I do send you money every two weeks. Next time we’re at Outback, what do you say I tell the waitress ‘This one’s on my Uncle Sam.’ Then we’ll go grab a couple of brewskies, and those are on me.”

Preserving Houston - A Houston Chronicle Op-Ed 2012

"Houston has no history. We tear it all down."
You hear this sentiment all the time around our city. We've sure been hearing it these past few weeks as the Prudential Building, one of our most important modern commercial structures, meets its end through implosion.

Before we accept that depressingly cavalier statement as absolute fact, however, maybe we should give the recent history of preservation in Houston a closer look.
Make no mistake, the Prudential Building in all its mid-century marble and granite glory, is a big loss to the city. Aside from the architecture, it represented a part of Houston's growing up, gaining commercial districts away from downtown, luring regional hubs of national businesses. As much as we might take those things in stride now, it was big news at the start of the 1950s.

There was no immediate need for the building to be torn down, either. By all accounts the land will remain vacant for years. We've certainly seen that before with structures that were part of the very soul of the city - the Shamrock Hotel and the Loew's and Metropolitan Theatres. For long time Houstonians, driving by those places can summon a pang of bitterness to this day.

The fact is, though, that we don't always tear it down. The year 2011 was a pretty good one for local preservationists, and it should give hope that maybe Houston is growing up in another way sixty years after the Prudential Building opened.

In August, our magnificent 1910 Harris County Courthouse re-opened. With no detail overlooked, contractors and artisans recreated what was the County's grandest space one hundred years before. They erased decades of bad remodeling decisions and gave us back the public jewel that was built in part so we could outshine new courthouses in Dallas and Ft. Worth.

At the end of 2011, the City of Houston unveiled a newly polished gem in the Julia Ideson Library building on McKinney. That project was accomplished with a non-profit organization and a capital campaign that raised over $32 million and leaves us with a state-of-the-art history archive and one of the most impressive public spaces in town.
In other words, there were enough people who were willing to pony up in the name of preservation. Some of the donors might have had memories of time spent at that library as children, maybe browsing the kids books that are still there today in the perfectly restored Children's Room, but you can bet that every one of them saw value for our city in saving a building that has meant so much to the community as a whole.

Houston got an updated preservation ordinance last year. It's not the toughest one in the nation, but it will stop the legal demolition of houses in the city's nineteen historic districts, every one of which voted to remain as such under the new rules.

Aside from the obvious esthetics, the residents realized that the historic districts make good financial sense, too. The neighborhoods are more stable, you know what your block is going to look like ten or twenty years from now, and according to academic studies, the average property values are noticeably higher.

In between grandiose public buildings and bungalow-filled neighborhoods are dozens of projects that repurpose industrial buildings into lofts, eighty-year-old houses into law offices or old gas stations into bars and restaurants. These are projects done by people who realize that character matters. Strong buildings and seasoned materials add dimensions to a space that you just can't get with new construction. Exposed duct work and replica signage are a far cry from century old brick and patinaed cypress.

Driving through Midtown the other day, I was thrilled to see activity at the Light Guard Armory on Austin Street. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum have been working to turn a 1925 military space into a lasting tribute to another group of soldiers.

People like to say that Houston is a young city. We're not Europe or Asia, that's for sure. We're not even Boston or New Orleans, but we did just turn 175 years old. Metaphorically, that's hardly a city that can be forgiven for sleeping on the couch and borrowing its dad's car.

Houston is almost the same exact age as Chicago. We're only three years younger, yet Chicago is filled with enough historic architecture to make that alone a tourist attraction. It's certainly not that Chicago passed on building sparkling glass and steel monuments to modern American business. They have some of the best. It's that enough people there realized that building the new didn't have to mean destroying the old. They saw value in both.

They recently gave landmark designation to their oldest known fast-food restaurant, a 1930 White Castle, and forty years ago, they turned an entire industrial planned community into a historic district containing hundreds of structures. In 2011, that district, the Pullman, was named one of the Ten Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association.

Chicago's golden age may have happened before ours, but Houston is still a treasure trove of what architectural historians call mid-century modern, those clean-lined post-WWII buildings like the Prudential.

Much like the great diversity of restaurants that makes Houston one of the best food cities anywhere, the diversity of built environment and the many stories that go with those places makes us much more interesting. Check the list of America's most popular vacation and convention cities, and, aside from Las Vegas and Orlando, you'll find cities filled with history- San Antonio, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago.

The places that people want to visit, where they want to meet, where they want to live are places with a sense of having been there a while. Places that are a little street wise. Places that have something to see. A city that is intent on destroying their past, that's a city without a story. That's a city in the witness protection program.

Our recent preservation history suggests that we might be growing up a little. Let's build on that success, and continue saving Houston's character.